There are few greater testaments to the elegance of simplicity than this, and there is always something a little audacious about that first moment when spoon taps into the golden glass of the caramel topping to get to the creamy deliciousness underneath.
Made up of just five easily available ingredients — cream, vanilla, salt, eggs and sugar — crème brûlée has provided the perfect ending for many meals over centuries thanks to its irresistible combination of tastes and textures from the smooth, creamy egg custard to the crunchy burned-sugar topping.
The first published reference to a crème brûlée comes up in a French text published in 1691. But the dish also has a long tradition in England, where it was first described in the the book The Modern Cook, published in the 1700s. In a tradition associated with Trinity College at Cambridge University, which claims to be the birthplace of the dessert, the college crest is burnt into the sugar at the top of the custard using a hot iron that can still be viewed today.
A slightly different version of this eternal favourite comes from further south, and the kitchens of Catalonia, where the crema Catalana is flavoured with lemon or orange rather than vanilla.
Classic Crème Brûlée
At Topaz, we make it the classic French way. Simply trying it is usually enough to make it an eternal favourite.
If you can’t wait, then making it couldn’t be simpler, even if you don’t have a butane torch lying around in your kitchen cupboards to caramelise the sugar topping.
- 480ml fresh cream
- 1 vanilla bean pod, split lengthwise
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 5 egg yolks
- 120ml sugar, plus more for topping
Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a saucepan, combine cream, vanilla and salt and cook over low heat just until hot. Let sit for a few minutes, then discard vanilla bean.
In a bowl, beat yolks and sugar together until light. Stir about a quarter of the cream into this mixture, then pour sugar-egg mixture into cream and stir to combine. Pour into four 6-ounce ramekins and place them in a baking dish.
Fill the dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the centres are barely set. They should still be a little wobbly. Allow to cool completely.
When ready to serve, top each custard with about a teaspoon of sugar in a thin layer. Place the ramekins under a broiler or grill set to maximum, two to three inches from the heat source. Cook until the sugar melts and browns or even blackens a bit, less than five minutes. Serve within two hours.