Reader Gerhard writes from Vienna to challenge me with this:
Tell us how to do a proper crème brûlée the old fashioned style… without using a torch to melt the sugar on top (anyone can do that, but who can do a classic crème brûlée?)
What Gerhard is referring to — I believe — is an item known as a salamander, which was used to caramelize sugar on top of a crème brûlée in the days before blowtorches. It’s an exceedingly simple device, basically a steel or cast iron disk on the end of a metal rod. The idea is that you heat the salamander over a flame until it’s red hot, then hold it about an inch over the top of the crème brûlée. The radiant heat cooks the sugar in no time.
Salamanders made a brief reappearance in gadget shops a few years ago. You couldn’t escape them in kitchenware catalogs. They were sold with sets of ramekins and packets of turbinado sugar in little crème brûlée “kits”. I never bought one then, since I was satisfied with my blowtorch, but after receiving Gerhard’s message I decided it’d be fun to put one to work on the blog this week. After making a few calls to some of the cookware shops in the area, however, I’ve discovered there isn’t one to be had in the entire Louisville market. I guess that’ll teach me. Next time, Joe, get on the darn bandwagon!