Creme brulee – it’s the classic French dessert.
And the glassy caramel topping mesmerizes all who eat it.
I still remember the first time I was taught to shatter the shell before scooping into the creamy custard below.
My grandparents took me on a week-long trip to Chicago for my twelfth birthday. We saw a few plays, explored a few museums, and ate dessert at every dinner – the absolute highlight of the trip for this pastry chef in the making.
When my grandma ordered the creme brulee, she warned me that I was in for something special. We shattered the topping together and she watched as I devoured the entire dish with glee.
Creme brulee may seem intimidating or overly complicated to make, relegated to the realm of restaurants and high-class establishments. But it’s actually far easier to whip up in your own kitchen than you might think.
Just whisk together a few basic ingredients, pour them into ramekins, and bake.
That’s pretty much it!
The baking process is the only part that gets a little bit tricky. In order to cook the custard evenly, it bakes in a water bath.
Achieving this involves setting ramekins in a deep pan of boiling water before placing it in the oven. Baking in a water bath is sometimes done when making cheesecake at home, as well.
If you’re not careful in your execution of this step, you’ll end up with scalding water running down your arms. But as long as you work slowly and carefully, your custard will cook successfully.
In fact, patience and organization are the keys to many successful cooking projects. Check out our post on kitchen safety for more tips.
Once it’s cooked, the best part about making creme brulee at home is torching the sugar on top.
I always love watching sugar melt into caramel. It’s even more fun when you get to eat it right away!
Shake Things Up with Flavor Variations
Vanilla is a classic flavor that complements the other simple ingredients, but if you’d like to vary the recipe a bit, you can flavor the cream during the first step.
Using the same method as you’ll find in my recipe for homemade caramels, you can steep tea, coffee, or spices in the cream, or add liquor.
You could also whisk 1/4 cup of dark chocolate pieces into the hot custard before passing it through the strainer – just be sure that it melts completely before straining, so you won’t lose any.
Don’t limit the extra flavorings to the custard alone. Add more variety by topping individual servings with your favorite fruit, chocolate shavings (we know the best microplanes to get the job done!), a dusting of cinnamon, or cookie crumbs.
Cooking by the Numbers…
Step 1 – Cream
Begin by preheating the oven to 300°F and placing your oven rack in the middle position.
Check the clearance of your roasting pan before you begin, to be sure it will fit – some pans have tall handles that leave little wiggle room if the oven rack is too high.
Fill a large saucepan with 6 cups of water, and place it on the stove over high heat to bring to a boil.
It’s important to use a larger pot than you may think is necessary, and to keep a close eye on the cream as it heats – or else it will overflow onto your stove.
And that’s not going to be fun to clean up! (But not impossible – check out our post on cleaning large kitchen appliances for tips.)
Heat the cream until it is scalding. Scalding dairy is the phase right before boiling, when it begins to bubble around the edges and up the sides of the pot.
You’ll know you’ve reached this stage when the cream begins to bubble around the edges and is about to boil over. As soon as it hits the scalding point, pour the cream through a fine mesh strainer or chinois to strain out the vanilla pod and cool down the mixture.
Step 2 – Whisk
In a large bowl, whisk togetherthe egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar until thick and pale. This is called the ribbon stage.
Step 3 – Temper
Temper the eggs by slowly pouring the hot cream into the egg mixture in a steady stream while whisking constantly. Continue to whisk until all of the cream has been poured in.
You can definitely complete this step on your own, but it is easier and safer if you have an extra pair of helping hands at home! Have one person whisk while the other pours the hot mixture into the eggs for easy tempering.
Once the custard is whisked together, pass it through the strainer one more time to remove any bits of egg that might have scrambled.
Temper Tantrum: How Tempering Works
Tempering is the process of gently and gradually increasing the temperature of a food item so that it does not cook too quickly.
This cooking technique is usually applied to egg-based custards and sauces to prevent the risk of curdling.
Eggs are very delicate – if high heat is rapidly introduced to a raw egg mixture, the proteins in the eggs go into “shock” and coagulate (solidify) too quickly. Essentially, this results in weird, lumpy, liquidy scrambled eggs.
No, thank you.
Patience and a good whisking hand are two necessities when tempering! By slowly pouring a heated mixture into the eggs as you are simultaneously whisking, you are gradually increasing the temperature of the liquid.
A steady whisking motion will provide a continuous movement of blending, which helps to both emulsify the mixture and also maintain a consistently rising temperature.
When tempering is done correctly in this way, you are sure to get creamy, dreamy success!
Step 4 – Pour
Pour the custard into individual 6-ounce ramekins. If you don’t have ramekins, shallow oven-safe serving dishes will work as well.
The deeper the dish, the longer it will take to cook. It’s best to use a dish no more than three inches tall and at least two inches in diameter so that you will have plenty of surface area for the sugar topping.
If using traditional 6-ounce ramekins, this recipe will yield four servings.
Place the dishes in a roasting pan that is at least 2 1/2 inches deep. Fill the pan with boiling water until the water reaches 2/3 the height of the ramekins, and cover tightly with aluminum foil.
Work quickly so you won’t lose heat.
Step 5 – Bake
Very carefully, transfer the pan to the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. If you are baking in a custard dish that is deeper than two inches, it might take slightly longer to cook, up to 1 hour.
You will know the custard is finished when it jiggles slightly if a ramekin is shaken lightly.
If it is still liquid in the center, it needs to continue cooking. And if there is no jiggle, unfortunately you’ve cooked your custard for too long. If this is the case, it will still be edible, though a bit rubbery in texture.
We’ve all had our desserts fall flat once in awhile – don’t give up! This dish is definitely worth another go, until you get it right.
Step 6 – Cool
Remove the pan from the oven very carefully when the custard is finished cooking.
I prefer to take the aluminum foil off of the dish before pulling it out of the oven so I am able to watch the water, and keep from accidentally splashing myself.
Remove the ramekins from the pan with tongs. Let cool in the fridge until chilled all the way through, for about three hours.
If you plan to serve them the same day, just keep them in the fridge until you are ready to serve. If not, wrap them in plastic wrap once they are completely cool. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Step 7 – Serve
When you are ready to serve, remove the ramekins from the fridge. Using a clean kitchen towel or disposable paper towels, pat off any condensation that may have formed on the top.
Sprinkle the remaining 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar in an even layer over the tops of your puddings, and brulee with a kitchen torch.
Move the flame around the perimeter of the dish first to melt the edges, and finish by melting the center. Heat until the sugar takes on an auburn color.
Don’t let it get too dark, or it will taste bitter and burned.
Be very careful when you are doing this. The melted sugar will be incredibly hot – over 300°F! Touching it, or the hot parts of the torch, would lead to one nasty, painful burn.
Let the dishes rest for three minutes after torching, to be sure that the sugar has cooled completely before serving.
You will know that your creme brulee-making has been a success when you hear the satisfying tap, tap, tap, crunch! of the spoon on the surface.
The flecks of vanilla speckled through the custard lend lots of flavor, and the sweetness is balanced by the slight bitterness of the caramel topping.
Treat yourself to something fancy – give this classic recipe a try tonight. You’ll be amazed at what a wonderful dessert you can create at home.
Do you remember when you first tried creme brulee? Were you mesmerized by the shattering shell? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!
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Photos by Nikki Cervone, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published June 8th, 2015 by Jennifer Swartvagher. Revised and expanded on May 22nd, 2017 by Kendall Vanderslice, with additional writing by Nikki Cervone.
*Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Kendall Vanderslice
Kendall’s love of food has taken her around the world. From baking muffins on a ship in West Africa and milking cows with Tanzanian Maasai, to hunting down the finest apfelstrudel in Austria, she continually seeks to understand the global impact of food. Kendall holds a BA in Anthropology from Wheaton College and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, and has worked in the pastry departments of many of Boston’s top kitchens. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Kendall helps to run a small community supported bread bakery and writes about the intersection of food, faith, and culture on her personal blog, A Vanderslice of the Sweet Life.