I break from the early makers of crème brûlée in that I prefer a very smooth, silky texture without any “bits” in it. I also like a simple, clean appearance that’s free of any flecks of this or that. The trouble is, it’s those bits and flecks that add flavor to this chilly custard dessert. So what to so? The answer for me is: infusion.
If you’re wondering what exactly an “infusion” is, it’s simply a process by which flavor is extracted from one substance and delivered to another. The extractee is usually something fairly strong like a spice or an herb. The receiving substance is usually a liquid of some kind: water, vinegar or broth, but most of the time something fatty like cream, melted butter or oil. Why? Because the things that are being transferred from point A to point B are usually essential oils: volatile fat-like substances commonly found in plants (indeed, they’re part of many plants’ defensive systems). Being structurally similar to the fat molecules found in cream and butter, they disperse readily in them, creating a vast, rich sea of flavor.
It’s fat’s ability to dissolve and deliver flavorful substances that makes it such an indispensable ingredient in the kitchen. Of course that property can work against us too, as anyone who’s ever left an uncovered slab of butter in the fridge next to some leftover Thai food knows. Panang gai is lousy on a sweet roll. Yet a little cream simmered with a sprig of rosemary is poetry in potatoes au gratin. Half-and-half that’s been heated with thyme and lemon zest can become a sublime crème anglaise. And once the spent herbs, spices and peels are strained out, there’s nothing left behind to ruin the presentation. Their flavors and aromas are the only evidence they were ever there.