Nothing beats classic Creme Brulee for a special occasion dessert. It takes just five ingredients to make this creamy French custard with a caramelized topping.
I’m not sure how I’ve been blogging for more than a dozen years, and never posted my favorite creme brulee recipe. Creme brulee is so well loved, you’ll find it on menus of fine restaurants all over the planet. It is rich and elegant. The shiny, crisp, burnt sugar surface is ceremoniously cracked with the edge of spoon. The thin layer of caramel shatters and gives way to an incredibly creamy custard with a silky texture. It’s one of the most popular desserts in the world. You’d never guess it was made with such simple and few ingredients!
Five ingredients make the magic happen.
First, choose a cream for your French custards. You can use heavy cream, light cream, or half-and-half. The latter is my favorite because it’s half milk and half cream. It’s a touch lighter than the others. But if you’re looking for the most indulgent version, use heavy cream. The vanilla bean pod, split, releases its seeds and creamy flavor into the cream as it cooks. Egg yolks add another layer of richness and buttery color. And they set the custard. Sugar sweetens and salt underscores the flavors. The ingredients are so simple, but together they make magic!
Pour the cream into a pot and cook until hot but not boiling. Steep the split vanilla bean pod in the cream. If you don’t have vanilla bean pods, then you can use vanilla extract. If using vanilla extract, add it after you take the cream off the heat.
Strain the cream using a fine mesh sieve into a big measuring cup with a pour spout. The vanilla seeds will pass through. But any larger bits from the vanilla pod will be strained out. Let the mixture cool slightly.
Mix the egg yolks and sugar together in a separate bowl until well combined. Whisk for about 3 minutes constantly, and you’ll notice the yolks will lighten slightly.
Tempering – a necessary step.
Pour about 1/3 cup of the warm cream mixture into the egg mixture while whisking. This tempers the eggs. Which means it warms them up without scrambling them.
Now that some of the eggs have been tempered with cream, pour them into the rest of the hot cream mixture in the glass measure while whisking constantly.
A step closer to creme brulee perfection.
The mixture will have a little foam on top from all that egg whisking. It will dissipate a little over time, or, for perfect custards, skim it off with a spoon. This is an optional step, but it will help create an even surface for the eventual crisp caramel topping.
Place the ramekins in a baking dish (I used a 13×9 inch cake pan) and pour the mixture into four 8-ounce ramekins. Or, if you have more guests to serve, six 6-ounce shallow ramekins.
Bathe those beauties.
Make a water bath by pouring hot water in the pan halfway up the sides of the ramekins. You can boil the water in a pot or in a large teakettle. For safety purposes, I recommend placing the pan on the oven rack, and then filling the pan with water. This removes any accidental sloshing of hot water during transport to the oven.
Bake the custards for about 40 minutes. Or until they are set around the edges and have a jiggle in their centers. Keep them in the water bath until the water is barely warm. During this time they’ll continue to cook through. Then transfer them to the refrigerator to chill.
Now – the fun part! (Just kidding. It’s all been fun!) The sugar crust! Sprinkle granulated sugar on top of the set custards. I used about a teaspoon of sugar per ramekin.
Use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar. For extra drama, do this at the table in front of your dinner guests! The trick is to keep moving the torch around the surface area as the sugar granules melt. Don’t tarry too long in one place. Otherwise you’ll end up with burnt custard. You’ll recognize it immediately because it will bubble up over the caramel and char black.
An alternative to the chef’s torch is the oven broiler. It’s an easy method but your custards must be very well chilled, or you’ll end up with crème brûlée soup. I’ll include instructions for that in the recipe card.
To enjoy, crack the crisp caramel topping with the edge of a spoon. The custard nearest the topping will be a little melted under the heat of the torch. This is normal and so delicious to eat! The custard below should be well set and hold in a spoon. Some pastry chefs avoid the melty custard top by preparing a caramel disk separately from the custard. That’s a lot of extra trouble, and personally I love the small bit of warm custard.
If you’re looking for a beautiful ending to special dinner (such as Valentine’s Day next week!) this one is tops. It’s a restaurant-quality dessert that you can easily make at home. The custards can be made a couple of days ahead, but the caramel topping should be prepared just before serving.
If you’re looking for a unique way to serve creme brulee, check out my Creme Brulee-Filled Strawberries! So delicious and also perfect for Valentine’s Day.
Classic Creme Brulee
Five simple ingredients treated just so, transforms them into a rich, elegant, restaurant-quality dessert you can make at home! Crème brulee is a classic French dessert that makes a perfect ending to a special dinner. It can be made ahead and refrigerated for your next dinner party. The sugar topping should be torched just before serving.
- 2 cups half-and-half or heavy cream
- 1 vanilla bean pod split, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar plus more for brulée topping
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Put on a large teakettle of water to boil, or use a large pot. You’ll need about 2-3 cups of boiling water.
Place the half-and-half or cream in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Add the salt and vanilla bean and cook until hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat and allow the vanilla bean to steep as the cream cools slightly, about 5-7 minutes. Pick up the vanilla bean pod with two fingers and lightly squeeze its contents into the cream. Stir. If using vanilla extract instead of the bean pod, heat the cream and then add the extract to the pot off the heat.
Place a fine mesh sieve over a large glass measuring cup with a pour spout (4 cup capacity). Pour the cream through the sieve to catch any large bits of vanilla bean pod that may have cooked off.
In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar together using a whisk. Beat until the mixture lightens slightly, which will take 2-3 minutes of constant whisking.
Stir about 1/3 cup of the warm cream into the egg mixture while whisking constantly to temper the eggs. Then pour this mixture back into the glass measure of remaining cream while whisking constantly. If the mixture is foamy, skim most of the foam off. This is an optional step, but creates an even surface for the caramelized topping.
Place four 8 oz. ramekins into a deep 13×9 baking dish. Pour the crème brulee mixture from the glass measure evenly into the four ramekins. Place the pan on the oven rack and pour the boiling water into the pan halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the centers are barely set and have a nice jiggle when moved. Remove the pan from the oven and let the custards stay in the water bath at room temperature until the water is cooled to warm, about 30 minutes. When the water is comfortable to the touch, remove the custards and chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or overnight. And up to two days ahead of serving.
Just before serving, sprinkle a teaspoon of granulated sugar on top of each chilled custard. Shake each ramekin to even the sugar across the surface of the custard. Use a chef’s torch to evenly caramelize the sugar across the surface. Move the torch constantly so that it melts the sugar granules and doesn’t char the custard below. Alternatively, place the ramekins on a baking sheet and broil them in the oven 2-3 inches from the heat source. Cook until the sugar caramelizes, about 3-5 minutes.
Serve immediately, or within an hour after caramelizing the sugar.
The doneness of the caramel is up to you. Some like the caramel topping almost black and bordering on bitter, while I prefer a lightly brown coating that tastes like toasted marshmallow.
If you have more than 4 guests to serve, use 6-8 shallow ramekins and cook for 3 minutes.
This recipe is adapted from Vanilla Creme Brulee by Mark Bittman from an old New York Times article.