Crème brûlée is an elegant, world-class dessert that offers a juxtaposition of sensory tastes and textures. Topped with caramelized burnt sugar, the rich, vanilla-infused custard is an indulgence that pleases everyone — from gastronomes to diners with less adventurous tastes.
Part of the appeal of this decadent dessert, in addition to its luscious flavor, is tapping through the shatteringly crisp crust to reach the chilled, silken custard below. A spoonful of warm, crunchy caramel with the cold, velvety custard is a study in contrasts.
Crème brûlée is French for “burnt cream.” England and Spain also lay claim as the originator of this dessert icon, and spirited debates about its origin continue to this day. Custards, among the oldest documented recipes, were made throughout the Middle Ages, often cooked in pastry. Little distinction was made between sweet and savory custards, although the latter might include ingredients like spices, herbs, game, and organ meats. The English word “custard” is related to the French croustade, which refers to pastry for a tart.
The earliest recorded recipe for crème brûlée is from 17th century France. The great kitchen master François Pierre Le Varenne, author of Le Cuisinier François (1651), was setting new standards for modern French cuisine. Culinary master François Massialot, proficient in sugar and pastry arts, followed closely in his footsteps. A detailed recipe for crème brûlée appears in his 1691 cookbook, Le Cuisinier Roïal et Bourgeois. A “red-hot fire rod” was used to caramelize the sugar. Other books mentioned a “red-hot fire-shovel,” a cast-iron kitchen tool with a long handle and flat head. Also called a salamander, it was heated in the fire, then placed over cooked food for finishing. A modern-day salamander is a gas or electric grill with the heat source in the top.
Massialot was chef de cuisine to Philippe I, de France, Duc d’Orléans, the younger brother of the Sun King, Louis XIV. New Orleans was founded as a French colony in 1718 and christened in the duke’s honor. A royal rumor claims that the dessert was created after the petulant duke complained to Massialot that his custard was too cold. The chef devised a clever way to warm it with a hot salamander. Voila … crème brûlée! New Orleanians have a special fondness for the dish; it has been a favorite in the Crescent City for at least 7 decades.
A Sweet Invention
Cookbooks of the period were fit for kings! Massialot’s cookbook was translated into English in 1702 (The Court and the Country Cook). Its focus was the elaborate court cuisine adopted by England’s bourgeois — the working class who admired aristocratic life. Crème brûlée flavorings included citrus peels, orange flower water, and cinnamon. In a cookbook reprint, Massialot changed the name crème brûlée to crème a l’anglaise or “English cream.” It’s doubtful that he meant to credit the English for its origin.
Cooked and stirred in a pot over a low fire, crème brûlée was a softer custard. It was cooled, sprinkled with sugar, and brûléed. An 18th century English recipe instructs, “Hold a hot salamander over it till it is very brown and looks like a glass plate put over your cream.” Sometimes the sugar was caramelized separately to make a thin windowpane of caramel that would be placed on top.
Crème Brûlée’s American Pedigree
Crème brûlée has an intriguing history in America. European cooks introduced custard to the Colonies. In The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy (1747), Hannah Glass baked custard in china cups. (Cup Custard appeared in The Joy of Cooking in 1946.)
When Thomas Jefferson traveled to Paris in 1784, he arranged a three year apprenticeship in French cuisine for James Hemings, who was his Monticello chef. Crème brûlée is one of many recipes that James mastered; records indicate that it was served at the Jefferson White House. In The Virginia House-wife (1824), Mary Randolph’s version of burnt cream resembles a layered trifle with cake, rich custard, and beaten egg whites browned with a salamander.
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy hired French-born chef René Verdon, who also served crème brûlée at the White House. Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published the same year. Her crème brûlée recipe calls for stovetop cooking — similar to the method for créme anglaise. Julia was fearless in using a blowtorch to glaze the sugar.
Southern boiled custard is basically créme anglaise. My mother served it at Christmas in delicate, etched, glass handle cups along with slices of fresh-grated coconut cake. The custard is never boiled but gently cooked
à l’anglaise. The chilled custard can even be frozen to make ice cream.
During the 25 years Roland Mesnier was executive pastry chef at the White House, he developed his own recipe that was exceptionally creamy and delicate; “more like a true crème,” he noted. He also preferred the stovetop cooking method.
Modern Flavor Infusions
National Crème Brûlée Day is celebrated on July 27. Crème brûlée has become a signature dessert in fine restaurants, and creative recipes appear in print, in cooking classes, and on TV. Countless recipe spinoffs have been developed, such as crème brûlée-flavored French toast (recipe on page 41), cheesecake, ice cream, doughnuts, and coffee. A vegan version is made with coconut or almond milk. Although countless flavor and ingredient variations exist, the original, classic vanilla-scented custard remains the most delicious of them all.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter who invented crème brûlée. Food is the great unifier, and this Renaissance dessert is an indulgence that brings shared pleasure and is able to feed everyone’s soul.
Ingredient Tips for Crème Brûlée
Crème brûlée calls for eggs, cream, sugar, and vanilla. To set your dish apart, use only the finest ingredients.
Eggs: Egg yolks give crème brûlée a lusciousness not found when using all whole eggs. (Save the whites for meringues.) Choose Grade AA large eggs. Pasture-raised eggs have the best taste and the most vibrant yolks. Omega-3-enriched eggs are full of goodness but can have a mild fishy flavor and aroma; avoid for custard. Cold eggs are easier to separate.
Cream: To make silky, rich, crème brûlée, use quality, heavy cream (at least 36 percent fat). A small portion can be replaced with milk or half-and-half. For a richer, slightly firmer baked custard version, substitute a little mascarpone for the liquid.
Sugar: Fine, white granulated sugar is best for the custard and caramelized topping. If using brown sugar, choose the lighter type. Brown sugar has more moisture and may not work as well.
Vanilla: Vanilla is the classic crème brûlée flavor. In her Flavor Thesaurus, British author Niki Segnit writes, “Vanilla spirits away the eggy flavor in custard.” Split a vanilla bean lengthwise; use the tip of a paring knife to scrape sticky seeds into the cream. Add the pod. Heat cream until hot; remove from heat, cover and infuse 10 minutes. Strain the cream following recipe directions. Or substitute 1 to 2 teaspoons quality, pure vanilla extract; stir into hot, strained custard.
• Tempering eggs: Place the bowl with the egg-sugar mixture snugly over a heavy pot draped with a tea towel. This will keep the bowl stable as hot milk is being whisked into it. You can use a ladle to add portions of hot milk to the mixture as you whisk.
• Chill unbaked custards overnight; baked custards will be extra silky.
• Crème brûlée should be 1 to 2 inches thick. Use a Pyrex casserole dish to bake single large custard (no more than 2 inches thick).
• An instant thermometer will tell you when custard reaches 175 degrees F; much higher and it can curdle.
• Oven temperature can range from 300 degrees F to 325 degrees F. (Some recipes call for 200 degrees F.) You may need to adjust the time for a lower temperature.
• Brûléed custards stay crunchy on top for about an hour.
• Superfine or fine sugar forms a thin disc when caramelized. For better results with high-moisture brown sugar, dry it in a very low oven; crush finely before use.
• Serve crème brûlée with a fruit compote of fresh raspberries, sliced strawberries, vanilla simple syrup, and a couple of drops of rosewater. Pomegranate seeds are a nice addition.
• If desired, caramelize sugar circles in the appropriate size on a metal baking sheet; at serving time, lift and place one on each serving of custard.
• Crushed pieces of thin, homemade, almond praline make a tasty topping if you don’t want to caramelize sugar.
• Chill the custard and freeze it to make ice cream. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for using the ice cream machine. Top portions with crushed almond praline or caramelized sugar.
• For richer-tasting custard, make the base with 2 cups heavy cream, 5 egg yolks, and ¼ to ⅓ cup sugar, to taste.
Ramekins: Use wide, shallow, oval or round crème brûlée dishes. Deeper ramekins may take longer to bake. The wider crème brûlée dishes help the custards cook evenly while maximizing the ratio of caramel to custard. Made from high-fired stoneware, porcelain, or burgundy clay, they are safe to use with a small butane torch or under the oven broiler.
Bain-marie: A water bath prevents custards from cooking too quickly. Place ramekins in a roasting pan or shallow casserole; pour warm water halfway up the sides of the dishes. If worried about water getting into the cream, wrap bowls with wide foil strips that extend slightly above the top rims.
Butane Blowtorch: A high-quality kitchen blowtorch melts and caramelizes sugar quickly without heating up the ramekins. It’s easy to use with an adjustable flame. Observe safety precautions and keep away from children. The butane canister is purchased separately. A standard household propane torch from the hardware store works well too. Or use the oven broiler. The heat may warm the custard tops slightly and browning can be uneven; watch carefully to prevent burning. Make certain the dishes are broiler safe.
Salamander: Iron salamanders work like a branding iron when caramelizing sugar. A flat, round iron head on a handle is heated over a gas flame or stovetop burner until hot, then placed over the sugar to melt it. Look for a salamander that properly fits the size of your ramekins. This method requires a little effort and sometimes browns the sugar unevenly.
Recycled Vanilla Bean: After infusing custard with a vanilla bean, you can capture its remaining flavor. Rinse briefly; blot with a paper towel. Dry the bean in a sunny spot, slowly in a low oven, or in a skillet over low heat, turning several times. When sufficiently dry, cut it into pieces. Use a coffee grinder to process the whole bean with 2 tablespoons sugar until powdery; for half, use 1 tablespoon sugar. Store in an airtight container; sprinkle over foods for a vanilla boost. You can grind pieces of the vanilla pod with your coffee beans, or simply add a strip to freshly ground coffee beans before brewing.
Chef Meitzer’s French Toast Crème Brûlée
This superlative recipe is from the personal files of Executive Chef Robert Meitzer of Forest Lake Country Club. Is it French toast or crème brûlée? The egg-cream mixture is poured over bread and baked, then sugar glazed on top. This crème de la crème dessert is the best of both dishes rolled into one. Chef Meitzer also serves this decadent dessert during brunch after a light entree. He likes to add poached cranberries or quality white chocolate; just “drop them on top of the bread, then fill with custard.”
2 cups heavy or light cream, or half-and-half
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon salt
5 large egg yolks
½ cup sugar, more for topping
1 pinch ground cinnamon
5 slices crustless white bread (brioche preferred)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees F. In a saucepan, combine cream, vanilla bean, and salt; cook over low heat just until hot. Let sit for a few minutes, then remove the vanilla bean. (If using vanilla extract, add it now.)
In a bowl, beat yolks and sugar together until light. Stir about a quarter of the cream into this mixture, then pour sugar-egg mixture into cream and stir. Lay bread into five 6-ounce ramekins then pour in the egg mixture until just below the top. Then place ramekins in a baking dish; fill dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the dishes. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, or until the centers are barely set. Cool completely.
Refrigerate for several hours and up to a couple of days.
When ready to serve, top each custard with about a teaspoon of sugar in a thin layer.
Place ramekins in the oven, 2 to 3 inches from the heat source. Turn on broiler. Cook until sugar melts and browns or even blackens a bit, about 5 minutes. Serve within two hours. Makes 5 servings.
Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée
Crème brûlée is the richest of all the custards. It’s easy to make following a few rules: temper the eggs, avoid high heat, and don’t overcook. Excessive heat is the enemy of custard. Using all heavy cream makes an exceptionally rich crème brûlée to be enjoyed in small portions. I often like to substitute one cup of half-and-half in place of one cup of heavy cream. The dessert retains its distinctively rich, velvety texture but is slightly less rich.
Try adding one of my favorite flavors to this basic crème brûlée recipe: infuse an herb like lavender, fresh basil, or mint; dark-roast coffee bean; lemongrass with fresh ginger slices; Keffir lime leaves; or strips of lemon zest. Before baking the custard, add in a little rosewater, orange flower water, ground mace, Myers Dark Rum, Grand Marnier, or a pinch of saffron for a buttercup yellow brûlée. Try stirring in 1/3 cup of homemade caramel or 3 to 4 ounces melted bittersweet chocolate.
Gild the lily — or the crème brûlée — with a few ripe raspberries or sliced strawberries or a spoonful of passion fruit pulp if available. I’ve even seen it topped with edible gold leaf.
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
1 vanilla bean split lengthwise, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla bean paste, or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
⅛ cup granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon sea salt (French fleur de sel is nice)
1 whole, large egg
3 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar, or as needed, for brûlée topping: fine granulated, turbinado, or light brown
Preheat oven to 315 degrees F. Pour cream and half-and-half into a heavy, medium saucepan. If using the vanilla bean, with the tip of a paring knife, scrape seeds from both sides of the bean into cream mixture; drop in vanilla bean. Heat mixture on medium-low heat until hot; don’t simmer. Remove from heat; steep 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, whisk sugar, salt, egg, and egg yolks well to incorporate sugar. The eggs will become pale and form a ribbon-like texture.
To temper the eggs, which prevents curdling, pour a small amount of the hot cream into the egg mixture while whisking constantly (see tips in this article). Continue whisking in about half of the hot cream mixture in small portions. Pour the egg mixture back into the remaining hot milk in the pot; stir constantly with a wooden spoon for another 30 seconds. The custard is ready and should not thicken. Pour mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a medium bowl; remove vanilla bean. Add the vanilla bean paste or extract now if you aren’t using the vanilla pod. Divide custard among four 6-ounce shallow, fluted crème brûlée dishes or soufflé ramekins. Or use three 8-ounce-size dishes. Leave at least ¼ inch headspace for the sugary brûlée topping.
Have available hot tap water or hot water in a kettle. To create a bain-marie (water bath) for gentle, even cooking, place the dishes into a 9-by 13-inch baking pan; set pan into the oven. Carefully add hot water to the pan pouring near the edge to avoid splashing the custards. Bake 25 to 30 minutes (check at 25 minutes). You may need to adjust the time slightly depending on the dish size, oven accuracy, and custard temperature.
Cook until the custard tops appear dry and set; they will seem barely wobbly and have a silky texture inside. A paring knife tip inserted will come out clean. Custards firm up more when chilled.
Remove dishes from the water bath; cool to room temperature on the counter, then refrigerate. Chill 4 hours or up to 2 days before adding caramelized topping. If refrigerated overnight, cover dishes with plastic wrap.
Blowtorch: Remove custards from refrigerator. If necessary, gently pat off condensation from the tops. Sprinkle the top of each one with 2 to 3 teaspoons sugar. Keep the layer thin and even. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to use a kitchen blowtorch. Hold it about 4 inches away from the dish and move it continuously in a small circular pattern. If too thick, the sugar can burn before it’s ready.
Broiling: To keep the custards cool, you can place the dishes on a roasting pan with water and ice before running under the broiler. Wear kitchen mitts and rotate the pan for even browning. Watch constantly. Brûléed custards can be chilled about 20 minutes, not much longer or the sugar will soften. Or serve at once; the lukewarm custard under the sugar is delicious. A shortbread butter cookie such as a Sablé can be included with each serving. This recipe can easily be doubled to fill six 8-ounce crème brûlée dishes. Serves 4. © Susan F. Slack
Forest Lake Chocolate Crème Brûlée
The flavor pairing of chocolate with caramel notes of burnt sugar is a match made in heaven. Executive Chef Robert Meitzer of Forest Lake Country Club generously shares the club’s recipe for its delectable Chocolate Crème Brûlée. Chef Meitzer adds a culinary tip: When mixing crème brûlée, try not to add air, especially when whisking. The bubbles will rise to the top when cooking and create a meringue texture. Straining helps remove any bubbles while ensuring that the custard will be smooth.
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups half and half
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
8 large egg yolks
⅛ cup plus 8 tablespoons sugar, divided
½ teaspoon Grand Marnier
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Bring cream and half-and-half to a boil in heavy large saucepan. Reduce heat to low. Add chocolate and Grand Marnier; whisk slowly until melted and smooth. Remove from heat. In a large bowl, whisk egg yolks and ⅛ cup sugar to blend. Gradually whisk in hot chocolate mixture. Strain.
Divide custard among eight ¾-cup custard cups. Place cups into a large baking pan.
Add enough hot water to the pan to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake until custards are set, about 50 minutes. Remove from water; cool for 2 hours. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat broiler. Sprinkle each custard with 1 tablespoon sugar. Broil until sugar turns golden, watching closely to avoid burning, about 3 minutes. Refrigerate until custards are set, 1 to 2 hours. Serves 8