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Merri Ann has a favorite restaurant in Idaho Falls that serves a very good crème brûlée. It’s one of the few times she’ll order dessert.

“Honey, it’s not difficult to make.” But it looks difficult. Somehow, I’m not very convincing. I should be a good husband and make it for her.

Creme brûlée is a simple custard with melted sugar on top. You can melt the sugar in the oven under the broiler or with a torch. The melted sugar provides a delightful contrast in textures–the silky, smooth custard against the crackle of the sugar candy top.

If you can make the custard, the melted sugar is easy. And pumpkin pie is a custard with pumpkin puree added. So, a crème brûlée is easier than many desserts.

Several years ago, we got on this creme brûlée kick. We made it over and over again and ran it downstairs for our customers to try. (How many stores serve you crème brûlée when you walk through the door?)

Soon, we were experimenting with variations. We went from Cinnamon Creme Brûlée to Chocolate Crème Brûlée to Crème Brûlée with fruit. (Raspberry Crème Brûlée is to-die-for.) They’re still easy.

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How to Make Custards

Custards are typically made with eggs, granulated sugar, cream, and vanilla. Mix the ingredients gently but thoroughly. Try to avoid a foam. For a smoother top, you may wish to spoon off any bubbles.

We prefer making our custards with egg yolks instead of whole eggs. The yolks are richer than the whites and since whites and yolks coagulate at different temperatures, we found that an all yolk custard is a smoother custard.

Custards need to bake gently and evenly with care not to over bake. Baking times for custards vary substantially and depend on the pans used and how deep the custard is. You should bake until the custard is gently set. In theory, that’s 170 degrees but it should be jiggly with the center not quite set like a cheesecake (which is another custard).

The individual custards are baked in a pan of water to evenly disperse the heat and ensure a gently heat of less than 212 degrees.

Back in the day, we placed the ramekins with the custards on a folded towel placed in the bottom of the baking pan. The towel insulates the ramekins from the heat on the bottom of the pan but we discovered that the towel can trap the water, keep it from circulating, and get hot enough to boil. The ramekins start to rock. A better solution is to place a wire rack in on the bottom of the pan.

Melting the Sugar

The sugar is melted after the custard is baked and cooled. The trick is to melt the sugar without recooking the custard. All we’ve ever done is chill the custards well before melting the sugar. Some chefs will place the completed custards in a pan of cold water to keep the custard cool while the sugar is melted.

Sprinkle sugar evenly over the completed custards. The sugar is melted by placing the desserts under the broiler and close to the elements or it is melted with a blow torch. A blow torch provides more control and you can see what you are doing but it is very convenient to do it in the oven and after a couple times, you will have the art mastered. Just heat the sugar quickly. It should look like a sheet of amber glass once melted.

Once the sugar has cooled, it will be hard. If you tap it with a spoon it will shatter like glass. Chill the dessert and serve it the same day. If held overnight, the sugar topping will become soft. We’ve placed the ramekins in the freezer to chill more quickly. Do not let the custards freeze.

This is the classic creme brûlée served in restaurants. You’ll be surprised how easy it is.

Classic Crème Brulee

9 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar

To make the custard, mix the egg yolks, salt, and the granulated sugar together until they are combined.

Heat the cream in a saucepan on medium heat until it just starts to bubble, not boil. Gradually stir the hot cream into the sugar and egg mixture. Add the vanilla.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place a rack in the bottom of a baking dish. Set 4 eight-ounce or 8 four-ounce ramekins on the rack. Divide the custard mixture between the ramekins. Set the baking dish with the ramekins on the shelf of the oven. Carefully pour hot water in the pan-without splashing water into the ramekins–until the water is halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the custard is just set.

Let the custards cool in the pan with the water, then remove the ramekins from the baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 hours or until chilled.

Use a paper towel to dab up condensation on the tops of the desserts. Sprinkle the tops with an even coating of sugar. Place the rack high in the oven and set the oven to the broiler setting. The tops of the ramekins should be close to the broiler.

Heat for a few minutes under the broiler, just long enough for the sugar to caramelize. Unless you want to serve them warm, return them to the refrigerator to chill.

Berry Crème Brûlée

We fell in love with crème brûlée made with berries. Most of the time, it works great but we’ve discovered that the liquid leaking from the berries can cause problems.

I’m hesitant to include this recipe but it’s so darned good that I’ve included it. If you feel brave, go for it.

(I did a little research before writing this. Harold McGee is well-respected food scientist. He recommends cooking the fruit with a little flour to make a slurry of the juice that escapes. We’ve used fresh and individually frozen berries and they worked.)

9 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fresh berries or individually frozen berries partially thawed
1/2 cup sugar

To make the custard, mix the egg yolks, salt, and the granulated sugar together until they are combined.

Heat the cream in a saucepan on medium heat until it just starts to bubble, not boil. Gradually stir the hot cream into the sugar and egg mixture. Add the vanilla. Gently stir in the berries.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place a rack in the bottom of a baking dish. Set 4 eight-ounce or 8 four-ounce ramekins on the rack. Divide the custard mixture between the ramekins. Set the baking dish with the ramekins on the shelf of the oven. Carefully pour hot water in the pan-without splashing water into the ramekins–until the water is halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the custard is just set.

Let cool in the pan with the water, then remove the ramekins from the baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 hours or until chilled.

Use a paper towel to dab up condensation on the tops of the desserts. Sprinkle the tops with an even coating of sugar. Place the rack high in the oven and set the oven to the broiler setting. The tops of the ramekins should be close to the broiler.

Heat for a few minutes under the broiler, just long enough for the sugar to caramelize. Serve immediately or return to the refrigerator to chill.

Cinnamon Crème Brûlée

Melissa Tracey was a kitchen conspirator in our crème brûlée foray. This was her favorite. Not only does the cinnamon add a wonderful flavor to the custard, the cinnamon flecks are very attractive. Be sure to use a top-quality cinnamon.

9 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar

Make the custard as in the classic recipe.

Chocolate Crème Brûlée

Chocolate makes a very good crème brûlée. Be sure to use good quality chocolate in this recipe.

9 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup (4 ounces) dark chocolate wafers
1/2 cup sugar

To make the custard, mix the egg yolks, salt, and the granulated sugar together until they are combined.

Heat the cream and the chocolate in a saucepan on medium heat until it just starts to bubble, not boil, and the chocolate is melted. Gradually stir in the hot cream and chocolate mixture into the sugar and egg mixture. Add the vanilla.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place a rack in the bottom of a baking dish. Set 4 eight-ounce or 8 four-ounce ramekins on the rack. Divide the custard mixture between the ramekins. Set the baking dish with the ramekins on the shelf of the oven. Carefully pour hot water in the pan-without splashing water into the ramekins–until the water is halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the custard is just set.

Let cool in the pan with the water, then remove the ramekins from the baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 hours or until chilled.

Use a paper towel to dab up condensation on the tops of the desserts. Sprinkle the tops with an even coating of sugar. Place the rack high in the oven and set the oven to the broiler setting. The tops of the ramekins should be close to the broiler.

Heat for a few minutes under the broiler, just long enough for the sugar to caramelize. Serve immediately or return to the refrigerator to chill.

About the Author

Dennis Weaver has burned food from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. He is the founder of The Prepared Pantry in Rigby, Idaho and the author of “How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking” available as an E-book or as a Kindle book on Amazon. Dennis lives in Rigby, Idaho, with his wife, Merri Ann. They have five wonderful children and six beautiful granddaughters.