Crème brulée – Yesterday was my first day at a local health club, and to celebrate finally getting some exercise, I decided to make crème brulée for dessert. Actually, I had been wanting to make it ever since we recently picked up a torch at E-Mart, and it just so happened that I decided to do it yesterday. Considering how filling it was, it’s probably a good thing that I had already started my exercise regimen.
I have a confession to make: I am a big fan of custard. I don’t know when I first developed a taste for the confection, but I imagine that the relative absence of custard-based desserts in Korea has probably helped fan the flames (Koreans do seem to love cream, but apparently don’t have the same fondness for custard.) Pretty much anything with custard in it, such as custard tarts or the French dessert ile flottante, is a hit with me.
I can and have made custard tarts at home, but crème brulée has always been one of those desserts reserved for eating out, primarily because of the final step of caramelizing a layer of sugar into a crispy topping. I had always want to get a torch so I could try it out at home, but the kitchen torches we found were always too expensive to justify purchasing them. On a recent trip to E-Mart, though, we finally found a reasonably priced torch (under ten thousand won), and Hyunjin finally gave into my begging. I told her we could use it for other kitchen tasks, such as charring steaks before putting them into the oven, but we both knew the truth: the sole raison d’être for this torch was to allow me to make crème brulée at home. Yesterday, the torch fulfilled its purpose. Being the good friend I am, I documented the process with photographs to share with you today.
I’ll start with the recipe, which is pretty simple, since we’re really just making custard. I had two ramekins that said they held 200 ml, but after measuring with water I found that you would have to fill them to the very top to get 200 ml—175 ml (approximately seven ounces for you non-metric folks out there) was more reasonable. With this in mind, I used 280 ml of cream, 30 g of sugar, and 2 egg yolks as the main ingredients. The first step in the process is to infuse the cream with whatever flavors we are using.
Those dark flecks you can see in the cream are pieces of finely chopped almond. Normally, the custard would call for a vanilla bean at this point, but I did not have one available. I’m sure you can get these somewhere in Korea, but I have no idea where, and even if I did I imagine they would be very expensive. I did use vanilla flavoring, but in an attempt to add more flavor I chopped up some almonds and threw them into the cream. It’s hard to say whether they actually imparted their flavor to the cream, but I did end up with some creamy almonds at the end when I strained them out. (The bubbles in the cream are from my stirring it with a whisk as it heated.)
Once the cream had been heated sufficiently, I let it sit for a while and prepared the remaining ingredients: the sugar and two egg yolks.
I whisked the sugar and eggs together until they were just mixed.
Once the cream had sat for a while, I strained it into the egg mixture a little at a time and whisked furiously until it was incorporated. In retrospect, I probably should have strained the cream into a different container and then poured it into the eggs. I was impatient, though, so I held the saucepan together in my left hand and the whisk in the right. It was pretty awkward, but I managed to not make too much of a mess.
The custard then went into the ramekins, which went into a casserole pan that was filled with hot water to about halfway up the ramekins. Then the whole thing went into the oven at 170 degrees C (approximately 325 degrees F). The purpose of the water here is to allow even distribution of the heat to the ramekins so that the custard will bake evenly. Also important is the fact that hot water is added to the pan, not cold—I used boiling water—otherwise it takes the water too long to heat up and your custards will take too long to set. As far as I could tell based on my internet research, using cold water in the pan is the thing that most often wrecks people’s custards.
I let the custards bake for 35 minutes, although 30 minutes probably would have sufficed. These were not overdone, though—they still wobbled in the center when shaken lightly. I let these rest in the water for a little while longer, and when they had cooled down I wrapped them with cling wrap (pressed down very lightly on the surface of the custard) and put them in the refrigerator. I’ve read elsewhere that you should put them in the refrigerator uncovered, but I think the important thing is that you don’t just stretch cling wrap over the top so that water condenses on the inside. You don’t want water on top of your custards when it comes time to put on the finishing touches.
The finishing touches, of course, begin with a sprinkling of sugar on top. This photo was taken by Hyunjin that evening after dinner. At that point I think the custards had been in the refrigerator for about six hours, but a few hours should be enough for them to set completely. Once I had enough sugar on top I tilted the ramekins around to make sure I had relatively even coverage.
Another photo by Hyunjin, and probably the most challenging shot of the bunch. It was hard to both capture the flame and keep everything in focus, as I was moving the torch around rapidly. In this shot here, I’ve actually just finished caramelizing the sugar and am now pulling the torch away.
This is a closer shot of the caramelized topping. The molten sugar quickly hardened into the trademark crispy shell of crème brulée and produced a lovely sound when tapped lightly with a spoon. I’ve read some recipes that instruct you to put the custards back into the refrigerator at this point to chill them again (the torching does heat up the top while leaving the bottom chilly), but I actually like the contrast in temperatures as well as textures. Also, I’ve read that if you leave the custards in the refrigerator for too long, you run the risk of the sugar liquifying. I decided to just let the custards sit for as long as it took for the shell to harden (about a minute).
The proof is, as they say, in the pudding (or the custard). After Hyunjin had eaten a few bites I made her hold up her ramekin and model the product. This was the best shot, showing the crispy caramelized shell and the rich, creamy custard beneath.
Even though I’m not sure that the almonds really added anything, and even though I didn’t have real vanilla, I’m calling this effort a success. The custard tasted great and was perfectly complimented by the shell. Improvements could be made, of course. For one, I’d like to experiment with different flavorings for the custard. Hyunjin suggested a citrus flavoring (my lemon sabayon tart has been well received by everyone who has tried it), and after doing a little more reading, I discovered something called crema catalana. In this Catalan version the custard is infused with lemon zest and then flavored with cinnamon, which sounds like it would be a very tasty and light variation. I also wish that I had broader, more shallow ramekins. Surface area is everything when it comes to crème brulée—the more surface area, the more tasty shell you get with each spoonful of custard. And I think next time I’ll also make less per person. For as much as I love custard, it is very filling and, as a dessert after a decent meal, 175 ml of custard (even with a crispy caramelized shell!) was a bit much. I calculated the caloric content of this confection (probably a bad idea) and came out with approximately 640 calories per custard! I guess it’s a good thing I’m exercising now.
It’s been a good two and a half months since my last food-related entry, so I figure I was due for another one. I hope you enjoyed the photos and, as usual, I wish you could have actually tasted the result.