Thursday, December 31, 2009

Crème Brulée for Two

This Christmas yielded a bumper crop of exciting new kitchen gadgets and cookbooks. Hint for those of you with under-stocked kitchens: start a food blog, and the gift-giving people in your life will really get the message that you are serious about this whole cooking-and-baking thing. It probably doesn’t hurt that I blatantly publicize my wish list before holidays and birthdays. This list has lately been stocked with lots of culinary accessories, but no more! I am pleased to report almost all of them were bestowed on me by generous friends and family. Listing them all would be tedious and slightly boastful, but I’ll definitely be highlighting various kitchen tools and cookbooks and their virtues in the weeks to come.

Today’s tool-du-jour is the Crème Brulée Torch. A Crème Brulée Torch is in the category of “things I’ve wanted for a long time that I’ve always been too frugal to actually purchase.” It seemed frivolous somehow, and frivolous things that you want but aren’t willing to invest in yourself make excellent presents. My cousin Ryan dispatched this charming tool to my house. In addition to melting and browning the sugar for crème brulée, the torch also provides hours of fun in the time-honored “playing with fire” tradition. We are fond of that tradition chez moi. Do note the ur-sophisticated use of French, because we are a fancy household, what with our food torches and French cuisine.

Other Christmas culinary gifts included real vanilla beans. I don’t know if these are the beans my husband bought for me, but he got me quite the substantial bundling of everyone’s favorite orchid pod. While I’ll continue to use vanilla extract for lesser baked goods, I thought that crème brulée deserved the real bean.

The biggest problem with Crème Brulée recipes is that they’re mostly designed to feed a crowd, and I really just wanted to make enough for my husband and me – and wanted smallish servings at that. I had more than my share of cookies this holiday season, and if I want to keep my figure (and I’m vain: I do) and don’t want to live at the gym (which I don’t: it smells), I need to be careful about my consumption of such decadent sweets.

This recipe was adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook,which was given to me on my last birthday. This is a really great cookbook. If you have no idea how to make something, you can follow the recipes to the letter, and they will almost certainly turn out. If you have a bit more confidence in the kitchen, you can futz about with the recipes and be reasonably assured things will still be tasty if you don’t get carried away. It’s a good investment for your cookbook library.

Chris Kimball wants you to use all heavy cream in this recipe. I swapped out some of the cream for 2% milk because of my aforementioned vanity. If you’re lucky enough to be naturally skinny – or iconoclastic enough that you just don’t care – feel free to use all heavy cream.

I also added the zest of half a lemon because we do love our citrus around here. The lemon flavor was quite pronounced. If you’re not hugely into lemon like I am, you might want to use less zest or omit it altogether for a more “classic” crème brulée.

Crème Brulée for 2

½ cup heavy cream (or ¾ cup if you don’t care about fat/calories)
¼ cup milk (I used 2%, and it was fine; omit if using ¾ cup of heavy cream)
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ fresh vanilla bean (or maybe half a teaspoon or so of extract)
zest of ¼ to ½ lemon (optional)
2 large egg yolks

4 teaspoons turbinado sugar (for the crunchy shell)

Preheat oven to 300. Cut vanilla bean and scrape out seeds. Mix together the milk and cream. Pour about half of it into a small saucepan. Add sugar and vanilla seeds and lemon zest, if you’re using it.

Dissolve sugar and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Once the dairy mix has boiled, remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 15 minutes (I only gave it about 5).

Bring water to boil and line a small baking pan with a dish towel. You are doing this because one bakes crème brulée in a bain marie.

Stir the rest of the cream/milk mix into the saucepan, then whisk in egg yolks. Pour mix evenly into ramekins. Set the ramekins atop the dish towel in the baking pan, and pour boiling water in pan until it reaches 2/3 the height of the ramekins. It sounds more fussy than it is – if you have a tea kettle and remember to set your water on, preparing the bain marie will take you 30 seconds, tops.

Bake at 300 for about 35 minutes (I thought mine maybe should have gone for 38) or until just barely set in middle. Cool at room temperature for 1-2 hours, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3-4 hours or until completely set.

Half an hour to 45 minutes before serving, remove from refrigerator. Gently blot the moisture from the tops of the crème brulées with paper towels. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of turbinado sugar evenly over each crème brulée – this will give you a pretty substantial sugar shell; you can use 1 teaspoon or so if the shell’s not your thing. Use a crème brulée torch (recommended) or the broiler of your toaster oven (not so recommended) to melt and brown the sugar.

Return to refrigerator for 30-45 minutes to re-firm the custard, then serve. Don’t wait much longer than this, as the sugar topping will soften if left too long.

So once you have the right equipment, crème brulée is dead simple. It’s a recipe that can be made with as few as four ingredients. I feel rather decadent that mine includes a whopping eight.

While the flavors were as hoped and anticipated, my crème brulées were a bit soft in the middle. I think I could have left then in the oven another 3-5 minutes; however, the softness also might also have been due to my failure to wait a full half hour after caramelizing the sugar before whipping them out of the fridge to devour them. I’m impatient like that. Alternately, my substitution of milk for some of the cream might have made it a bit less firm. Since the taste and overall and creaminess were unaffected, I intend to continue this ingredient swap, with confers psychological benefits all out of proportion to its actual capacity to make this a “healthy” dessert.

Bon appetite! That’s more of my fancy French for you.

Printable recipe here.


  1. Yes, I have wanted one of those for so long... always forget about it when I get to the houseware's department... those brulees look perfect!
    Thanks for the recipe for 2~

  2. I hope you enjoy if you ever make it. The torch is so very fun. Happy New Year!

  3. I'm glad you like the torch! The creme brulee looks delicious. Happy New Year! - Ryan

  4. That looks so good! and I love your tool-du-jour

  5. It *was* delicious -- thanks again, Ryan!

    I'll keep mentioning tools and cookbooks in the New Year, Danti. :)

  6. I have a new blow torch too! It is most impressive when lighting candles at a dinner party.
    I found you through photogazing... one of my favorite past-times. Come by for a visit and we'll share some creme brulee.

  7. I hadn't even thought of that possibility for the torch!

    Welcome -- I'd love nothing more than to get down to Alabama this time of year. It is so cold! :)

  8. I actually found an entire creme brulee set at a thrift store today for a grand total of $5, ramekins and torch included. I was researching recipes and found your blog. Great pictures!

  9. Sounds like a find! Thanks very much. :)