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Feature Thu Jul 24 2008

Getting Burned by Creme Brulee: a Cautionary Tale

Making crème brûlée was something I’d meant to do for a while. Our small butane kitchen torch has been great for lighting the grill, but deep down, I knew that wasn’t its true calling in life. It was crying out to caramelize, preferably that thin layer of sugar sprinkled on top of a perfect dish of crème brûlée.

creme brulee - second attempt

This beloved French custard is not difficult to make. But sometimes, despite the relative ease with which you think a recipe will come together, you manage to botch it up so badly that the results can only be described as comical. After my first attempt at making this dessert last weekend, the final product was particularly hilarious.

The recipe I used came from a reliable source: the Food Network, Alton Brown to be exact. I’ve had lots of success with Alton’s recipes before, but this was different. First of all, his recipe for crème brûlée was supposed to produce an alarming 48 oz. of the creamy, eggy mixture. This was a bit much for two people, so I decided to halve the recipe. Unfortunately, I broke one of my cardinal rules of cooking, which goes something like this: before even pulling the measuring cups out of the drawer, calculate and write down the halved measurements on the recipe so that you don’t screw it up as you go. Since, on this occasion, I didn’t follow this rule, it wasn’t until I had already put the ramekins, sitting in their lovely bain-marie, into the oven, that I realized I had royally screwed up the recipe.

creme brulee - pouring

Instead of using half a quart of cream, I had used half a cup. Obviously, this is a significant mistake. It probably should have dawned on me earlier, when I saw that my custard mixture filled only a few ramekins, instead of the six 4-oz. ones I had planned for, but it didn’t. Maybe my eggs were just less voluminous than Alton’s, I thought. I then decided not to leave well enough alone and add a sliver of chocolate to each dish, just to give it that extra something special.

Of course, five minutes after I had put the dishes in the oven, I glanced at the printed recipe again and realized what I’d done. In a dish composed of so few ingredients, which requires very specific baking methods to achieve the desired result, a mistake of this magnitude was irreparable. I couldn’t slap a little icing on top or cover it in sprinkles and hope no one would notice. Half an hour later, the ramekins emerged from the oven, and at the bottom of each one was a thin layer of pock-marked yellow paste. It was at this point that I probably should have scraped the eggy mess into the trash and started again, but, never one to waste perfectly “good” food, I soldiered on.

Since I had to abandon all hope of actually achieving true crème brûlée, I threw caution to the wind and decided to keep experimenting. Since we were low on regular sugar, I thought, why not brûler the tops with brown sugar? When you’ve already ruined your dish, why not completely destroy it, turn it into a science experiment of truly epically awful proportions?

The brown sugar did not melt into a crispy, glassy crust, as regular sugar would have, but instead hardened into little black balls, perched atop the hardened custard like burned pebbles. I had transformed the dish into something truly inedible.

Fortunately, experiences like this serve a purpose. They remind why you came up with your cardinal rules of cooking in the first place, and they prove just how important it is to make precise measurements when baking. If you do decide to make your own crème brûlée (and it is, in fact, rather easy, as I learned on my second attempt a few days later), take a tip from the pros and use a mise-en-place approach: measure everything into small separate dishes before you start mixing/cooking/baking. Then double check that all your measurements are correct. Everything from that point on will be cake, or crème brûlée, if that’s what you’re going for.

Crème Brûlée
Recipe by Alton Brown
(from the Food Network website)

1 quart heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 cup vanilla sugar, divided
6 large egg yolks
2 quarts hot water

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Place the cream, vanilla bean and its pulp into a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean and reserve for another use.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar and the egg yolks until well blended and it just starts to lighten in color. Add the cream a little at a time, stirring continually. Pour the liquid into 6 (7 to 8-ounce) ramekins. Place the ramekins into a large cake pan or roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake just until the crème brûlée is set, but still trembling in the center, approximately 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the roasting pan and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.

Remove the crème brûlée from the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes prior to browning the sugar on top. Divide the remaining 1/2 cup vanilla sugar equally among the 6 dishes and spread evenly on top. Using a torch, melt the sugar and form a crispy top. Allow the crème brûlée to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.

creme brulee - adding chocolate slices

My adaptations (try at your own risk…):
Cut several slices of chocolate from a good quality bar and drop one or two into each ramekin just before baking.

creme brulee - final product

- by Dana Currier

j / August 7, 2008 1:51 AM

You have to dry the brown sugar out in the oven for 20 min and then it will work! Great book is The Best Recipe. Kind of like consumer reports for recipes. They change every ratio of the recipes until they are absolutely streamlined, elegant and perfect. They mentioned the above trick. (mine suck because I browned the custard. Looks like an omelet!!!!

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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Editor: Robyn Nisi, rn@gapersblock.com
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