Creme Brulee

When it was on the cusp of popularity in the U.S., I sort of introduced crème brûlée to a restaurant where I was working at the time, and, predictably, they took off. So much so, that most of my nights were spent torching crème brûlée as fast as I could. Finally, I put an end to that (popularity is overrated), and that was that.


There was also a chef in the kitchen who was irked every time I started up the torch to caramelize the custards, saying “That’s not cooking.” I’m not sure how putting fire to the top of something to cook it was different from putting a fire under something, such as a skillet or saucepan on a stovetop, but since I was known for getting into trouble for talking back to people, I didn’t say anything.

Years later, I moved to France and started eating crème brûlée again because, frankly, it’s hard to avoid. There are good versions, but I still haven’t found one that tastes as good as when you make them at home. Plus I get to use my individual vintage Le Creuset gratin dishes when I do, too.


In My Paris Kitchen, I wrote about part of my journey back to this dessert was because the French bake crème brûlée in shallow baking dishes, so the ratio of caramel to custard is a little different than the deeper ramekins often used in the States, which made me love them (again) even more.

A torch is a great thing to have in your kitchen and I got mine (below) at my local hardware store. But my new favorite kitchen appurtenance is my electric hot water kettle. I had to stop drinking coffee for a while and since tea doesn’t do it for me in the morning, I was drinking a toasted grain beverage, which has the same roasted flavor as coffee, so I didn’t feel like I was missing much. (I drink coffee for the taste, not the caffeine.) Yes, it’s not the same thing, but it was odd how people made me feel like I was committing some grave act against humanity by giving up coffee. Almost the same blowback as quitting crème brûlée.


So now I’m drinking coffee, and eating crème brûlée again. Another exciting thing happened was getting a copy of In the French Kitchen with Kids by Mardi Michels. I saw a preview of the book a few months prior and I loved how she made French cooking accessible to everyone, including the little ones. French cooking isn’t hard. True, some of it involves fancy techniques, but most French home cooking is very simple.

Crème brûlée is nothing more than making a custard, baking it, then caramelizing the top, which is the only tricky part. And the part where mom and/or dad will want to step in and take over. But considering how much power I wielded with my blowtorch in a restaurant kitchen, scaring the line cooks from swiping cookies from the pastry department, I would imagine it might have the same effect on keeping the brood in line, fyi.

I’ve not used a broiler to caramelize custards but Mardi says you can do it, but to watch out, as the caramel can burn quickly. So keep an eye on them. If you’ve overdo it when caramelizing the top (which I’ve done once or twice), let it harden, pry it off, sprinkle the custard again with granulated sugar, and caramelize it again.

Creme Brulee
Print Recipe
4 servings
Adapted from In the French Kitchen with Kids by Mardi MichelsI tinkered with the original proportions (and baking times) in the recipe, upping the amount of custard. Shallow molds can vary, but the amount given here fit in the bowls of my small gratin dishes, and the standard (4 ounce/125ml) ramekins, which I tested as well. Similar-sized custard cups would work too.Baking times in custards can vary. These don't get covered with foil while baking, so it's easy to check them while baking and you can take them out just when they're ready. I used very hot water from my electric teakettle so yours may take more time than mine.
1 1/4 cups (300ml) heavy cream
1/2 cup (125ml) whole or lowfat milk
1/3 cup (70g) sugar, plus about 4 tablespoons for caramelizing the custards
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped (use just the seeds), or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or ground vanilla beans
4 large egg yolks
1. Preheat the oven to 300ºF (150ºC). Place your gratin dishes or ramekins in a deep sided baking dish. Heat water in a saucepan or electric teakettle to use for baking the custards.
2. Warm the cream, milk, 1/3 cup sugar, and vanilla bean seeds (or paste, or ground beans) in a small saucepan over medium heat. In a bowl, stir together the egg yolks. When the cream is warm, remove it from the heat and gradually pour it into the yolks, whisking constantly. Strain the custard through a fine mesh strainer into a large measuring cup with a spout or small pitcher.
3. Pour the custard into the gratin dishes or ramekins, then add hot water to the pan to the baking dish, until it reaches halfway up the outsides of them, aiming carefully so you don't get any in the custards.
4. Bake the custards until they are just set when you jiggle them. For shallow gratin dishes, mine took 15 to 20 minutes, in ramekins they took 20 to 25 minutes. (In Mardi's book, she advises 45 to 50 minutes, so they may take longer in your oven.)
5. Remove the cooked custards from the water bath, being careful as they are quite hot, and cool on a wire rack. When cool refrigerate the custards until they are completely chilled. (They can be refrigerated 3 to 4 days if you wish. Cover them in the refrigerator to prevent them from picking up other odors, if you do.)
6. To caramelize the custards, sprinkle each custard with enough sugar to cover the top. My gratin dishes took about 1 tablespoon of sugar each; ramekins may take slightly less. Use a blowtorch to caramelize each custard.The best way to do this is to wave the blowtorch over the top until the sugar starts to melt and bubble. Then, carefully, tilt the dish with one hand while you wave the flame over the custard, turning it so that the caramel covers the top in a relatively even layer and doesn't burn. You may want to wear an oven mitt for holding the custard dish if you are worried about spills. Let them caramel harden and serve.

Serving: Serve the custards shortly after caramelizing the tops. You can refrigerate them once they are caramelized, but they lose some crispness and I think if you're going to eat creme brulee, you should do it when it's at its finest.

Note: As mentioned, some people broil the sugar-topped custards under the broiler to caramelize the sugar. If you try that, take care as they can burn quickly. You can also make a regular caramel in a skillet and pour the warm caramel over the custards, and let it harden. For these custards, I'd use about 1/3 - 1/2 cup (70g to 100g) of sugar for the caramel.

 

Related Posts

Tips for Using Leftover Egg Whites

Goat Cheese Custards with Strawberries in Red Wine Syrup

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream

How to Make the Perfect Caramel

Ten Tips for Making Caramel

Vanilla FAQs

 

 

The classic French caramelized custard recipe

Never miss a post!

50 comments

  • Sherri
    September 4, 2018 5:17pm

    My fave is lavender creme brulee. Warm (but not boil) the cream with lavender flowers before adding the yolks. Let it steep for 20 minutes, not more, of the flowers will release tannins and make it bitter. Then OMG! What an amazing surprise when you bite into the brulee and taste lavender.

    • Sylviane
      September 4, 2018 6:18pm

      I love that suggestion. Thank you. I happen to like cooking with lavender it never fails to surprise people and taste so good. How many flowers would you use in David’s “mother recipe”?

    • Pil
      September 6, 2018 2:32am

      Oh what a wonderful idea. I was wondering what to do with my lavender!

  • Sue Fourmet
    September 4, 2018 6:03pm

    When a friend and I visited San Francisco sometime in the mid eighties, every restaurant we visited had creme brulee with ginger on their dessert menu. We ate lots of creme brulee on that trip..

    • Jane
      September 8, 2018 12:32am

      I also use a ginger infused cream. I often add raspberries or sliced mango in the bottom of the custard. I usually use brown sugar; I find it easier to apply an even coating over the granulated sugar.

  • ClaireD
    September 4, 2018 6:22pm

    I may have missed it, and if so I apologize, but how much water to you put in the baking dish if using ramekins?

    • Bebe
      September 5, 2018 6:58pm

      ClaireD, the recipe says halfway up the outside.

  • Alice Schwartz
    September 4, 2018 6:43pm

    Thanks so much for suggesting “In the French Kitchen with Kids.” I am ordering several copies for grandchildren. Love your blog, books, and sense of humor!

  • Bebe
    September 4, 2018 6:48pm

    My husband loves this stuff – so do I – but we save our cravings for the nicer restaurants around town that offer it for dessert. I have four of those lovely little individual Le Creuset gratin dishes – mine are the deep blue – and somewhere there’s a torch. Should get busy!

    Electric teakettles are very big in the UK. Mine was a gift from a Brit friend years ago…

  • phanmo
    September 4, 2018 7:26pm

    Hey David,

    Have you ever used one of those crème brûlée irons ? I’ve seen one or two in people’s kitchens and always wondered if they worked well…

    • September 4, 2018 7:52pm

      My friends all have them and they work if you have a stove, or better yet a fireplace or outdoor grill, where they can heat up properly. I have used the broiler and it worked OK.
      Also, around here they use cassonade, which is like a cross between white granulated sugar and brown sugar.
      I can’t wait to try this recipe. Crème brulée is such a smooth, soothing finish to a big meal.

      • phanmo
        September 10, 2018 12:46pm

        It’s cassonade here too (Nantes) but I’m tempted to try it with vergeoise (more or less brown sugar) for a North American touch.

        I’ll have to keep an eye out for an iron at a garage sale, I’ve always used a blowtorch

    • Tiffany
      September 5, 2018 10:19am

      It’s been awhile since I’ve used my blowtorch for creme brulee. My kids will have you to thank!

      As a side note, have you ever tried making creme brulee ice cream? Bi-rite makes one that’s to die for and I wish they offered it year round! I would love to find a solid recipe to try at home.

      • September 5, 2018 10:26am
        David Lebovitz

        I haven’t tried that flavor at Bi-Rite, and it’s not specifically in their book, Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, although they share some of their caramel ice creams in the book so perhaps you can reproduce it using one of those.

  • CHANTAL
    September 4, 2018 7:57pm

    Hi David, are the Le Creuset dishes cast iron or porcelain ?

    • September 5, 2018 6:01am
      David Lebovitz

      They’re cast iron.

  • jan
    September 4, 2018 9:14pm

    How funny, I just watched masterchef junior kids do a creme brulee challenge on YT (s3e7, fyi – I don’t even have kids but I love this show) while waiting for a phone call, like, an hour ago. And now you post this, haha.

    I like your ratios – custard looks about 1.5 cm’s deep, is that correct?

    • September 5, 2018 6:03am
      David Lebovitz

      I didn’t measure the height of them after they were baking with a rule or anything but in the wider gratin dishes, like I used, the custards will be shallower than those baked in ramekins.

  • September 4, 2018 10:16pm

    Creme Brulee screams decadence to me the way it deliciously hits your palate. A velvety texture that I adore.

    A friend and I were making it for a dinner for 12 and failed to do something right. Just as we were pondering what to do with the yummy not-creme-brulee her husband pleaded for the concoction. She poured it into a glass and down the hatch it went.

  • Hillary
    September 4, 2018 10:54pm

    Any tips on how long to warm the cream or what temperature it should be before adding to the egg yolks?

    • September 5, 2018 6:03am
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve never measured the temperature, in fahrenheit or centigrade, nor calculated how long it takes, but you just need to heat the cream/milk until they feel warm to the touch.

      • Hillary
        September 5, 2018 4:55pm

        Thanks! I will give it a try. It is hard to believe it is so simple!

  • September 5, 2018 2:39am

    I rarely eat creme brûlée because it was ubiquitous in the Bay Area in the 80’s–we ate so much of it, and now I know who’s to blame! Its transports me back to that time and place like a time machine.

  • Gavrielle
    September 5, 2018 4:17am

    I was all excited there for a minute thinking you were going to reveal a way to caramelize creme brulee with an electric kettle!:) Never mind, back to the blowtorch it is.

  • September 5, 2018 4:58am

    I’m so scared of using a torch that I think that I’ll use the broiler when I give this recipe a try — I feel like a wimp but I’m not sure I could work up the courage to use one. (I totally love Mardi’s book — my favourite recipe is the Creme caramel! Something I never thought I could make but her recipe made it very accessible.)

  • September 5, 2018 6:26am

    I love creme brulee! It’s definitely one of my top favorite desserts. Looks perfect!

  • Anne Hughes
    September 5, 2018 9:53am

    Hello David, Thank you for sharing your lovely recipes. Just one
    question please: Are your oven temperatures for fan ovens? Many
    thanks.

    • September 5, 2018 10:04am
      David Lebovitz

      I have two ovens and sometimes test recipes in both. I find the cooking times to be similar although some convection ovens cook/bake faster than standard ovens, but I haven’t universally found that to be the case in mine.

  • September 5, 2018 12:34pm

    Thank you David for the mention of “In the French kitchen with kids” and, of course, this delectable recipe. Now you’ve got me wanting crème brûlée at all hours of the day! Gorgeous photos!

  • Joan
    September 5, 2018 3:55pm

    As the proud owner of a new torch (thanks to my thoughtful sister on my birthday), I’ve been planning to make a batch of creme brûlée … so this post is very timely!

    I noticed in one of your first photos, there’s a bottle of liquid creme fraiche. Do you have a slightly different version of this recipe when using French grocery ingredients?

    I’m never quite sure what the French equivalent of heavy cream is when adapting my recipes while in Paris.

  • Maxim
    September 6, 2018 1:41am

    Thank you David. Do you have a preference between flan or creme brûlée? Thoughts on that? Be well.

  • Susan
    September 6, 2018 1:58am

    I quickly scanned the comments and didn’t see this questions; my apologies if I’m duplicating…

    What about the technique of caramelizing sugar, letting it harden, pulverizing it and sprinkling THAT on your brulee before torching? I’ve heard that eliminates the possibility of uneven caramelization on the top, as is often the case with just sprinkling table sugar on your brulee.

    • tim
      September 6, 2018 5:01am

      Susan,
      I have heard of doing the caramelized sugar for putting in the oven. This was on a british baking championship(one of my favorite shows)

      I would think that the sugar then torched would burn too much..
      Frankly its pretty easy with normal sugar. Just have to make about 20 of them and you will have the technique down pretty fast

      • September 6, 2018 8:38am
        David Lebovitz

        Yes, that sounds really complicated and a lot more work than necessary. (And a lot more dishes to wash, too.) Caramelizing the sugar on top of the custards works really well, and as Tim said, once you get the technique down, it’s extremely easy.

        • tim
          September 6, 2018 3:03pm

          Also if you just want to practice… try doing it on a 1/2 of a banana with sugar.
          Easy to try and can put into a banana split.

        • Susan
          September 6, 2018 7:56pm

          Well, I am all about less complication, less dish washing and more creme brulee. Will do. Thanks for the replies.

  • RAD
    September 6, 2018 6:12am

    David is a preferred gas that should be used in making these or anything involving a torch?

    I’ve been told NOT to use propane as it creates harmful gasses.

    I’ve always used my propane torch for blistering peppers and haven’t noticed any ill effects.

    I would appreciate your thoughts.

  • Yael
    September 6, 2018 10:31am

    How opportune! I was just thinking of making crème brûlée this weekend, having recently purchased a few shallow brûlée dishes.
    I want to make elderflower crème brûlées, however – I have a bottle of elderflower cordial that I want to use up, and besides it’s a lovely flavor which I think will go great in there. Have found a few recipes, but they tend to differ in liquid/yolk/sugar ratios… you’re a source I trust, so I’d love to use your recipe as a basis. How would you go about incorporating elderflower cordial into it?
    Thanks!

    • Linn
      September 7, 2018 9:19am

      What about using dried elderflowers or elderflower tea?

      • Yael
        September 7, 2018 10:04am

        Thanks for the suggestion, but it isn’t relevant to me, both because I don’t have dried elderflower and because a big part in wanting to make this to begin with is the bottle of cordial I do have and want to put to good use…

  • Roanne MARTIN
    September 6, 2018 11:20am

    Hi David. Have you ever heard of the method of making the custard on the stove and not in the oven? That is what Simon Hopkins says is the original method
    . I tried it once and it seemed tastier than the oven method and less of a hassle – water bath, etc.

    • Yael
      September 6, 2018 12:09pm

      I don’t know about flavor, but my guess is that oven-baking might be useful for crème brûlée since the water evaporation is different than what it’d be on the stove, and it creates a slight “skin” on the top (not an actual skin, but a slightly firmer layer) which would serve as a good base for the sugar.
      Then again, you can brûlée pretty much anything (when I first got my torch I made a number of interesting attempts; I think the best one was with vanilla ice cream). so I don’t know *how* much of a difference this makes.
      Kinda want to see a Food Lab article on the subject, now…

    • September 6, 2018 12:59pm

      I’ve always done it like that and it works perfectly. I chill thoroughly before torching. But Yael’s suggestion that baked may have a firmer top as a base for the sugar is interesting.

      Incidentally the Catalan equivalent, Crema Catalana (has less cream in it and is thickened slightly with flour) is always cooked on the stovetop.

  • patty
    September 6, 2018 1:11pm

    I have never eaten crème brulee. I need to get out more!

  • BelleD
    September 6, 2018 7:49pm

    Creme brulee has never gone out of style for me. Loved it from the first time I had it (I think I was 10 yrs old). If I see it on the menu at restaurants, I will always order it.

  • Bill Brooker
    September 8, 2018 3:33am

    For another twist on this classic recipe, you can torch brown sugar on top. Gives it a markedly different flavor, and after a night in the fridge, the burnt brown sugar begins to turn into a syrup to die for.

    • September 8, 2018 7:24pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve not had great luck torching brown sugar as the impurities in it start to burn. I’ve only tried it with regular brown sugar (the sticky kind we get in the U.S.) but I know some people have it work. Which do you use and maybe I’ll give it another try?

  • Tabby
    September 9, 2018 11:05am

    After enjoying Chef John’s creme caramel recipe made with creme fraiche, I like all of my custards to have a bit of that lactic tang, it balances the caramel so nicely.

  • Mark Steele
    September 10, 2018 2:28am

    Creme Brulee, the never-ending dessert: I was the pastry chef for David Bouley in the late 80’s and we did a version of the famous Le Cirque Creme Brulee (Sirio Maccioni, the famous maitre d’, had a creme brulee every day!):

    1 liter heavy cream
    1 liter milk
    250 grams sugar
    18 yolks
    2 vanilla beans

    Bain Marie 300F, always in a conventional oven. We desiccated brown sugar, by placing it on top of a convection oven for a couple of hours, then used this to sprinkle on top and put it under the salamander.

    However, despite that provenance, the best Creme Brulee I ever had was at Charlie Trotter’s. I think it was less fat than the Le Cirque version and I think the dairy products were better quality than what get in New York in the 80’s.

    David, your recipe is closer to Trotter than Bouley…

  • Marianne
    September 12, 2018 11:33pm

    I used to live in San Francisco around 2000 (when everyone got laid off from their overpaid jobs) and had the most memorable Earl Grey creme brulee at Fog City Diner. A friend also gave me the recipe for cardamom creme brulee which is also delicious.