There’s a lot of tittering going on in elite pastry circles about crème brûlée these days. Just like molten chocolate cake, it’s an item most restaurants put on their menus solely out of obligation — something for country rubes and tourists who want to feel sophisticated dining in the big city. Right this very minute snotty waiters all over Manhattan are traipsing back to the kitchen with their dessert orders, muttering to themselves. I’ll be right back with that, Mr. Clampett.
But me, I never get sick of crème brûlée, NEVER. It’s just too simple, too perfect. Add a little vanilla, a pinch of cinnamon, maybe a couple gratings of nutmeg and I’m a stone-cold goner. So snicker away, Helmut, I’ll remember you in silky burnt cream paradise.
What follows is a basic formula for a light crème brûlée. It has just enough egg yolk to hold the sugar and cream together, and not much more. It can be enjoyed plain, but makes an elegant medium for just about any flavor you’d care to infuse into it. It will accommodate a couple of tablespoons of liqueur, citrus zest or instant coffee. You can add up to 1/4 cup of thicker ingredients like pumpkin, mango or passion fruit pulp, melted chocolate or peanut butter, but you’ll want to fortify the custard with two more yolks in that case.
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, set a small saucepan of water (or a teapot) over low heat.
Pour the cream into a small saucepan, along with any flavoring you’d care to infuse (vanilla, cinnamon stick, citrus peel) and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Immediately remove the cream from the heat and allow it to steep for 10-20 minutes, then strain through a fine sieve.
Meanwhile, whisk the sugar and yolks together in a medium bowl until they’re light in color. Add the cream in a steady stream, whisking all the while. Pour the mixture into four 6-ounce ramekins. Place the ramekins into a roasting pan or baking dish.
When ready to bake, put on an oven mitt and open the oven door. Slide a middle rack half way out and gently place the baking dish containing the ramekins on it. Carefully pour in enough hot water to come half way up the sides of the ramekins. Slide the rack back into the oven and close the door.
Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the custard is just set (firm but slightly jiggly in the middle). Cool on a wire rack, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours or up to three days.
Half an hour before you want to serve, remove the ramekins from the refrigerator. Take off the plastic wrap and spread a healthy tablespoon of sugar evenly over the top of each custard. Using a salamander or a blow torch, melt and lightly brown the sugar. Let the crème brûlée sit for 5 minutes, and serve.