Yes, this is a story about baking. It’s about crème brûlée, and how to make a fine, fine batch of cinnamon-flavored custard. But mostly it’s a love story. I am speaking, of course, about the love between a girl and her brand-spankin-new Bernzomatic Fat Boy propane blow torch.
Because, you see, there is only one true way to make the caramelized sugar on top of crème brûlée, and it ain’t with an oven. No, my friends, you need the fierce flicker of flame that only a blow torch can provide. True, I did not believe at first–couldn’t I just take Dorie’s advice and place my sugar-topped custards in an ice bath under a broiler, and all would be well? Or what about the other cheater’s option of making a caramel in a saucepan and then pouring it on top? Couldn’t I be content with these other methods?
But then I realized that I was passing up a prime opportunity to buy yet another kitchen gadget for my already-overstuffed cabinets. “Never!” I roared. “I shall not rest until I own a kitchen torch of my very own! I shall spare no expense or effort!” Imagine, then, what a surprise it was to find a big torch for sale at my neighborhood home & garden store for $15. Glad I stuck to my principles!
Trust me, though, it was completely worth it to do this thing right. Crème brûlée, or burnt cream in English, is first made by cooking a custard base of egg yolks, milk, and cream in individual ramekins. I infused my cream with several cinnamon sticks, which provided a delicious background flavor that blended well with the vanilla in the recipe. After the custard is baked, it’s refrigerated until completely cold and firm. In my case I actually made it a few days in advance and kept it well-wrapped in the refrigerator. This prolonged chilling time didn’t seem to hurt the flavor or texture at all.
After the custards are totally cold, they’re sprinkled with a generous heaping of sugar, and the sugar is then heated until it caramelizes–it should be quite dark, but just on the safe side of burning (no one likes the taste of black sugar!) As I mentioned above, the caramelizing is best done with a torch, although other methods will do in a pinch. If done properly and quickly enough, the custard should still be set, silky smooth, and cool, and the sugar topping has formed a warm, hard caramel shell that has to be “cracked” before you can get to the custard underneath. It is this interplay of hard and smooth, warm and cool, sweet and almost burnt, that makes crème brûlée so irresistible.
…well, to some of us anyway. I’m sadly not much of a custard person, although I did think this recipe was an excellent, excellent version of crème brûlée. I just really don’t love the texture, sad to say. However, my husband adored these and ate three in quick succession. And ate the fourth a few hours later. And then was heartbroken when there wasn’t any more crème brûlée available. THAT must be the sign of a good dessert!