What is crème brulee?
I’m sure everyone has had creme brulee at some point in their life. The crack of the sugar as your spoon goes through the bruleed sweetness and down into the silky rich vanilla custard. It’s the perfect combination of smooth, hint of crunch, and full flavor. Creme brulee has been at the top of many pastry menus because it’s easy to recognize and has proven to always be a winner.
So what exactly is creme brulee? And what is the difference between brulee and its close relatives: Creme Caramel, Flan, Pastry Cream, BlancMange, Pot de Creme, and Panna Cotta? Let’s dive into the ingredients, methods, and little nuances that each one has. I will share my favorite ways to serve them and maybe share a trick of the trade along the way.
The art of crème brulee
Creme Brulee is made with heavy cream and/or whole milk, granulated sugar, vanilla beans and/or extract, and egg yolks. The method to making the brulee base is to bring your cream and half of the sugar to a simmer, then remove from heat. Mix the other half of the sugar with yolks and temper into the hot mixture. Add vanilla. Strain through chinois. Pour into ramekins and bake in a water bath at 270-300F (low fan) until it is set. This can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes, depending on how shallow your dishes are.
The final finishing details
If it bubbles on top, it’s overcooked and will taste like scrambled eggs. It needs to have a firm jiggle when gently bumped in the water bath. No color on top. Remove from the oven. Rest at room temperature for 30 minutes then chill 2-3 hours. When you are ready to serve, dust a light, even coating of granulated sugar on top and then caramelize using your blow torch. (Yes, I said blow torch.) Move your torch in tight circles around the brulee for even caramelization. Serve immediately.
Creme caramel and flan are very similar to crème brulee. The base of this custard differs from creme brulee because it has a combination of eggs and yolks and the sugar is cooked first. Coat the bottom of each ramekin with caramel. Then add the custard base and bake in a water bath. Once the custard is set, allow to cool at room temperature and refrigerate overnight. Then run a knife along the inside edge of the dish, and invert onto a plate. This gorgeous, amber-topped custard will reveal itself as you remove the ramekin.
Serving your dessert
Any of these custards goes well with fresh fruit or berries. Some people garnish them with shaved chocolate, Chantilly cream, or simply nothing at all. The one thing that is guaranteed is that no matter how you garnish it, people will love it at first bite. Don’t be intimidated by it. It may take a try or two to get the feel for the proper cooking time. But after you understand it, these beauties will become a staple in your dessert repertoire for a very long time! Bon Appetit!
Crème Brulee Recipe (by Keli Marks of Bakery 28)
Whole Milk 2 C or 200 grams
Heavy Cream 2 C or 200 grams
Yolks 15 yolks or 300 grams
Sugar ⅔ C or 150 grams
Vanilla Beans 2 each
- Put the whole milk and heavy cream into a sauce pot. Sprinkle in a little of the sugar from the recipe to prevent scorching on the bottom.
- Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape all the seeds out from both sides. Put everything into the cream mixture (including the pod).
- Once it comes to simmer, remove from heat.
- Whisk your yolks and sugar together. Temper in some of the hot cream mixture into the yolks. Stir. Then add all the warmed yolk mixture into all of the cream.
- Mix well and strain through a fine mesh sieve (or chinois).
- Pour into ramekins. Note: These do not require grease/pan spray.
TRICK OF THE TRADE: If you want to remove all the tiny air bubbles from the tops, simply run your blow torch quickly over the tops just to pop the bubbles. Be careful not to burn them.
- Put the ramekins into a large cake pan, fill halfway with hot water, and place in a 270-300F oven for about 30-45 minutes.
- Once done, it will have a firm jiggle when touched. Remove from the oven and let sit in the hot water bath until it reaches room temp.
- Remove from the water bath and refrigerate a minimum of 3 hours.
- After completely chilled, remove from the cooler. Dust tops with granulated sugar and caramelize with a blowtorch in a circular motion.
- Serve immediately.
Additional options for flavors
SALTED PEANUT: Add a tablespoon or two of peanut butter and a pinch of salt.
CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT: Add a tablespoon or two of Nutella.
COOKIES & CREAM: Pulverize 4 oreos. Stir into the brulee base before baking.
CHOCOLATE: Stir in ¼ C chocolate chips into the hot cream.
RASPBERRY: Add 2 T raspberry puree and 2 drops red food color to your brulee base. Then put a couple of raspberries into each ramekin before baking.
Click here to see more of Keli Marks’ creations & recipes
Pastry Chef Keli Marks is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. She received a full year education at the French Pastry School in Chicago, IL in exchange for being the very first assistant to Jacquy Pfeiffer & Sebastien Canonne, MOF when they opened the school in 1996.
Keli has been on the Food Network on three separate occasions: Sugar Rush, Romance Novel Cake Challenge and The Holiday Baking Championships. In addition, she was on the Chicago chapter’s board for Les Dames d’Escoffier from 2009 – 2011 and was a guest pastry chef at the famed James Beard House in NYC in 2013.
As the pastry chef owner of Bakery 28, she incorporates local ingredients from farmers within the Carolinas and promises to only use natural ingredients.
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