Baked Sunday Mornings: Classic Crème Brûlée with Caramelized Brown Sugar

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It has been quite a while since I’ve been able to participate in my bi-weekly Baked Sunday Mornings blogs due to my recent move and wedding planning, and it feels so goooood to be back! Truth: I was not that excited about this recipe. When I look at a dessert menu and see crème brûlée listed, it barely elicits a shrug. However, sometimes we need a little reminder of why the classics are, in fact, classics. This Classic Crème Brûlée with Caramelized Brown Sugar from the Caramel chapter of Baked Elements was just the thing to reawaken my senses to the hallmark aroma of vanilla beans, the smoothness of custard, and the crisp, glassy sugar top that have made this French dessert timeless. I found myself giddily anticipating the spoon’s first plunge through the burnt sugar layer and the revelation of creaminess underneath!

As usual, BAKED takes classic desserts and applies some kind of a twist to make them exceptional. In this case, they have replaced the white sugar topping with dark brown sugar, which imparts a deeper flavor of molasses to the crackly top layer. It is subtle and pleasant, but for me, the focus is always the custard. Of utmost importance is the quality of your vanilla. Don’t even THINK of using any sort of imitation products– you need the real thing here. (Well, you always need the real thing when it comes to vanilla, but especially when it’s the starring flavor.) I used a Madagascar vanilla bean from Penzey’s Spices, one of my favorite spice purveyors.

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Cut the bean carefully lengthwise and split open the pod. The tiny black seeds are rich with vanilla perfume– scrape them right into the cream in your saucepan so you don’t waste any on the cutting board. Throw the pod in as well, giving the cream even more flavor. You will heat the cream to just below boiling (no scalding please!), and let it sit for 10 minutes to steep. Start your water boiling at this point, which will be poured into the baking pan later.

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Meanwhile, you will whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl until slightly lightened in color. The recipe instructions say not to overmix, though I’m not totally what that would look like. You then need to temper the eggs to avoid having very creamy scrambled eggs (which I presume you do not want if you’re reading a blog post about crème brûlée). Pour a small amount of the hot cream mixture into the eggs and stir continuously with a wooden spoon or spatula. Keep adding it little by little until all the cream has been incorporated. This process slowly heats up the eggs so they will not cook.

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Set a fine-mesh sieve over a large measuring cup or a bowl with a spout, and pour the warm custard through. You may have some thicker custard remnants (e.g. the skin that forms over the cream in the pot when it sits) left in the sieve along with most of the vanilla seeds– I was none too pleased about the latter, as I wanted maximum vanilla flavor infused into my little cream pots. You can push through a lot of that residue by agitating it with a wooden spoon. And don’t forget to scrape every last bit from the bottom of your sieve! (You might have guessed by now that I don’t mess around when it comes to vanilla.)

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Pour the custard mixture evenly into your prepared ramekins. Then *carefully* pour the boiling water around the ramekins in the baking pan without splashing into the custards. Pour in enough water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is called a bain marie, or water bath, which bakes the custards more gently (same technique as cheesecake).

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The prescribed baking time is 30-35 minutes, but I baked mine in five slightly smaller ramekins, so they were done in 27 minutes, when the edges were set, but the centers still a little jiggly. (I might even pull them a minute or so earlier next time.)

Remove them from the water bath immediately so they don’t continue to cook. This is a bit tricky, as burn potential is very high! If you have a sturdy pair of non-slip tongs, you could try that, but I simply used my oven mitt, though it felt a little precarious at times. 😉 Let your little pots cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least four hours.

I served mine the following evening. This is, of course, the fun part– time to bust out the pyrotechnics! A kitchen torch is useful for many things, but none are as tantalizing to me as burning sugar. I love watching the sugar droplets form and melt together and caramelize, because… IT’S SCIENCE. I had never torched brown sugar before, and I found that it burns more quickly, darkly, and unevenly than white.

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The “crack” of the sugar was a little softer than I expected, but crisp nonetheless. And the custard underneath… velvety deliciousness! The sugar had that subtle depth of molasses, and the crème was possessed with a heavenly vanilla essence that frankly made my eyes roll into the back of my head. Yep, that tasty. I also love the appearance of the pale yellow custard flecked with those beautiful vanilla seeds….

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Incidentally, I used white sugar on one of my custards just to see and taste the difference. This one was sweeter, and maybe still my preference, but I did love the brown sugar. I found that the white sugar took longer to melt, but it didn’t burn as easily, and it had a harder, smoother, more glassy top. Either way, you win.

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As I said, this recipe helped me remember why crème brûlée really is special. It’s an elegant French dish that is very quick and simple to put together, besides the chilling time. If you’re making a romantic meal or prepping for a dinner party, this is a wonderful dessert choice (and perfect to make ahead). And if you’re wondering what to do with those leftover egg whites, you can stick with the theme and make French macarons… although “quick” and “simple” are not words I’d use to describe those!

Head over to Baked Sunday Mornings for the recipe for Classic Crème Brûlée with Caramelized Brown Sugar, and take a peek at my fellow bakers’ custards while you’re visiting! 🙂

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.

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