Crème Brûlée

I think it’s hysterical to watch people reading a dessert menu. There are those that read it as if it were a trashy novel, and those that giggle childishly, like when your 8th grade science teacher talked about Uranus. Some read it as if it were the yellow pages, scouring it for the one dish they recognize. And some are Indian Joneses, up for a culinary adventure. Many read it in denial, expounding on their determination to reject, but they end up ordering the most decadent over-the-top creation they can find. If you are lucky enough to find your favorite desert listed on the page in front of you don’t hem and haw in over-indulgent, guilt-ridden angst. Just order it.

For many people, that favorite dessert is crème brûlée. I remember exactly when this dish took off. It was the summer of 1989, and suddenly it was on every desert menu in San Francisco. There was a run on propane torches in the cities hardware stores, and I had to pick one up in Modesto.

Of course crème brûlée is a classic, much older than 20 years, and it still remains a crowd pleaser. It is the propane torch that keeps people from making it at home. This is good news for restaurants, as it gives people a reason to dine out. But I say, c’mon people, don’t let a little flame intimidate you! Give it a shot. The caramel at the end is actually the easiest part. It’s the baking that most people screw up.

This dessert is a rich baked custard cooked in an oven bain-marie, chilled, then topped with a layer of caramelized sugar. The original method of caramelization was with an iron disc heated over a flame, then placed on top of the sugar to sear it caramelized. Some chefs use a broiler, but I disapprove as it easily overcooks the delicate custard. The best method is a torch, of which there are many models now available, including butane and propane, available at fancy-pants cookware stores or at OSH.


18 ounces (2-1/4 cups) heavy cream
1 scraped vanilla bean
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2-3 cups turbinado sugar (aka “sugar in the raw” – you can use regular granulated if you prefer … I don’t)


  1. Combine cream and vanilla in a saucepan and heat until just warm. Whisk together yolks and sugar, then slowly whisk in warm cream. Strain and cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 325˚F. Place 6 ramekins in a roasting pan (or some oven proof dish with sides slightly higher than those of the ramekins). Pour cooled custard into ramekins, leaving at least 1/4 inch of space to the rim. Carefully place roasting pan on the oven rack, then add cold water to the roasting pan until it rises 2/3 up the sides of the ramekins. (Yes, I prefer cold water.) Cover the roasting pan with a sheet of parchment paper or foil, then bake about 1 hour until the custard is set with a “jell-o jiggle.” It should not be brown or souffléd at all, just set. Cool, then remove to the fridge and chill completely. (Overnight is best.)
  3. Working with one custard at a time, coat the surface generously with turbinado sugar then pour off the excess. Using a torch, heat the sugar until it starts to bubble. Be sure to keep the flame moving back and forth across the custard to prevent the eggs from over cooking, and to prevent burning. As soon as the sugar liquefies, sprinkle a little more on, and keep heating until the color begins to caramelize. Add up to 3 or 4 layers of sugar as each liquefies to get a good hard sheet of caramel. Stop heating when the color is golden brown, then move on to the next ramekin. Be sure to let the caramel cool a bit before you serve. Once the caramel is done, the crème brûlée should be served within 30 minutes or the sugar will get soggy from the custard and lose its crack-a-bility.

**Add flavor to your custard by flavoring the milk. Melt in chocolate, steep in tea or coffee, flower petals, lemon zest, etc. Be warned, though, that floating garnish like nuts or berries will float to the top, look lumpy, and burn when the sugar is torched. **
julia burning brulee
I love her, but she’s burning the sugar… she needs to add more and keep her torch moving!!!

Print this recipe