Crème brûlée is to desserts as Tom Cruise is to movie stars: with Cruise as your leading man, you’re guaranteed a hit. Whenever I’d put crème brûlée on the menu at the restaurant where I worked, it would outsell all the other desserts by such a huge margin that I’d have to start work early to keep up with the demand. Learning how to make the creamy classic seems to be just as popular—I once taught a pastry class and noticed two burly uniformed men among the mainly female audience. They turned out to be firemen who had come to turn off the smoke detectors before my class started; when they learned I was doing crème brûlée, they stayed for the class.
Crème brûlée (pronounced krehm broo-lay) belongs to the family of custards that includes the classic crème caramel (krehm kair-ah-mehl) and the lesser known but equally luxurious pot de crème (poh duh krehm). From a simple list of ingredients—eggs, sugar, milk, cream, and a flavoring such as vanilla—comes this array of suave, silky baked custards.
How are they all related?
One day, after months of making hundreds of custards, it hit me: all these desserts are the same. Crème caramel is a baked custard that’s cooked in a caramel-lined ramekin; crème brûlée is a baked custard that’s topped with a sheer, crackly layer of caramelized sugar; and pot de crème is, well, a baked custard.
Same technique, but different results. You’ll notice that all three custards share the same mixing and baking techniques. Look closer, however, and you find that the proportions for each custard vary and that, while the variations seem small, they actually correspond to a different result.
Crème brûlée is the richest of the three. All heavy cream and yolks, this custard cooks up rich and thick—a wonderful contrast to the glassy brittle layer of caramelized sugar it’s topped with. Next is pot de crème. With equal parts cream and milk and lots of egg yolks, it is eggy and soft and smooth, pure custard to be spooned out of a cup and savored unadorned. And finally, crème caramel is the lightest, with whole eggs as well as yolks, milk as well as cream. It’s meant to be inverted out of its baking ramekin so its tawny caramel sauce can pool around it; the egg whites make the custard firm enough to stand on its own.
Tips for baking the silkiest custards
As you can see from the recipes, custards aren’t complicated desserts, but in order to make them what they should be—suave in texture, mellow and rich in flavor—you need to pay close attention to details.
Many recipes direct you to scald the milk and cream; this is a holdover from the days of unpasteurized milk. Scalding does, however, shorten cooking time because the milk is already hot; it also ensures that the sugar dissolves completely in the custard base before baking, so I recommend this step. If you’re making a flavored custard, add any additional ingredients at this point so they can steep in the hot cream to extract their full flavor.
Don’t dump the sugar directly onto the eggs and let it sit; this causes the yolks to “burn” into hard little lumps that detract from your creamy custard. Rather, add the sugar while your whisk is moving; this way, the sugar will be gradually incorporated into the eggs.
One of the most important techniques in baking is called tempering, which is the slow addition of a hot liquid to cold eggs. Tempering gradually brings the temperature of the two mixtures together and keeps you from making scrambled eggs, which is what you get when a scalding hot liquid shocks an egg. To temper, add a large spoonful of the hot cream to the egg-sugar mixture, whisking all the while. Add another spoonful, and then another, and continue until all the cream is mixed in.
Always cook custards in a water bath. A water bath shields the custard from harsh, direct oven heat and moderates the cooking. An oven any hotter than 325°F is asking for trouble; for custards, the more gentle the heat, the better.
The wobble test says it’s done
Ovens vary in temperature day to day; sometimes your custard base is hotter or cooler than usual; perhaps your ramekins have thinner or thicker walls. I always play it safe and check the custards early just in case. Also, custards continue to cook a little and set up after they’re taken from the oven—another reason to take them out just before they’re done.
To test for doneness, wiggle a ramekin around. It should be wobbly like Jell-O, but not soupy. When the custard in the ramekin moves as one mass rather than as a cup of liquid cream, it’s ready. If a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, then the custard is probably overcooked. If this happens, remove the ramekins immediately from the water bath and plunge them into ice water to bring the temperature down and stop the cooking. Note that crème caramel will usually cook much faster than the other custards because of the egg whites in the base, which are full of proteins that coagulate at a lower temperature.