© Denzil Green
Crème brûlée is a baked custard. It’s made with cream instead of milk, to make it richer, and like a regular baked custard, has eggs for both added richness and to help it set. After the custard is cooked, a layer of sugar is sprinkled on top, then caramelized.
The caramelizing needs to be done quickly with intense heat so that the caramelization happens on top so fast that there is no time for the heat to penetrate through to the custard. Ideally, the inside custard should remain room-temperature or slightly-chilled even, and the caramelized sugar on top, once set, should form a brittle disk that snaps when you put your spoon through it.
In restaurants, the caramelization is done quickly under “salamanders” — very hot, purpose-built grills that melt and brown the sugar on the top without there being time to warm up the already-cooked custard underneath. Grills/broilers at home don’t produce the same amount of intense heat to do the job on top as fast without affecting the insides.
Nevertheless, most of us have to make do with our grills/broilers. For this method, make sure that the dishes that you have your custards in are oven-proof. Pulverizing the sugar first in a blender to a very fine powder will cause it to then melt faster under your grill/broiler at home, meaning less time is needed in the oven.
Some foodies buy kitchen blowtorches specially to caramelize the sugar on the top. To many others, this seems over the top, but it’s hard to begrudge them this when they admit that it’s one of the most fun things in their kitchens.
People often speculate whether some form of brown sugar might give a better caramelization effect than white sugar, but white sugar is best, because the brown sugar can actually start to flame and burn on you.
There are now some dairy-free recipes for crème brûlée that use tofu instead of cream and eggs. There are also recipes for many flavoured ones, including chocolate and lavender, but purists often prefer the straight-up ones that are flavoured with just a little vanilla. Heaven only knows what the purists would feel about the tofu ones.
Air bubbles in your crème brûlée mixture will give it an uneven texture: stir it, rather than beating it, to help avoid this.
Whether using your oven’s grill/broiler or using a restaurant salamander, the heating elements should be pre-heated with the appliance’s tray / rack pulled out. If you do this, when the crème brûlée dishes are placed on the rack and it is returned to being under the heat source, the bottoms of the dishes will stay colder (which is desirable), because they’re not going onto a hot rack.
Both crème brûlée and crème caramel were very popular with restaurateurs, because the custard could be prepared in advance, leaving just the caramelization part till the last minute. They have now gone out of fashion somewhat.
Brûlée means burnt. In English, it is often just called “Burnt Cream” or Trinity Cream, because it was often served at Trinity College, Cambridge from about 1879 on. It is usually cooked in individual serving dishes.
The French don’t have a word for custard, so they call it crème.
In the French spelling reforms of 1990, the accent circumflex over the “u” in brûlée was actually dropped, so that now the spelling is: crème brulée.
The plural, technically, is crèmes brulées.