During my Mexican-food-obsessed youth, my favorite dessert was flan, the Latin American version of crème caramel: smooth, eggy custard enveloped in browned sugar syrup. That was until I tried crème brûlée, which is nearly identical to crème caramel, with one crucial difference: Instead of being melted into syrup, the sugar is sprinkled on top of the custard and burnt to a crisp. (The name literally means “burned cream.”)
Both desserts combine a bland but very rich custard with some cloying variation on pure sugar. Custard and sugar, by themselves, are boring; together, they make a well-balanced dessert (in terms of flavor, not nutrition, obviously). But unlike crème caramel, crème brûlée provides an irresistible textural contrast between silky custard and crunchy sugar.
What’s more, the charred flavors that burning creates add a soupcon of dark sophistication utterly lacking in crème caramel. And though it requires only ingredients you probably already have in your fridge, it is 1) insanely easy to make; 2) pretty much impossible to screw up (I mean, you're supposed to burn it); and 3) virtually guaranteed to garner admiration.
The most challenging part of making crème brûlée is putting the custard in the oven to bake. I’m not being entirely facetious – it’s actually a little tricky. You must cook the custard in a water bath; surrounding the ramekins with hot water keeps the custard moist and prevents it from breaking into a lumpy, curdled mess. Assemble it on top of your oven, or on a nearby countertop, so you don't have to carry it far and risk spilling the custard mixture, or the boiling water, or both.
Once steamed in the water bath, the custard will taste as smooth and velvety but appear quite homely, its surface covered with pockmarks. The burned sugar layer takes care of this, and using the right amount of sugar is crucial. It should coat the entire surface of each custard – no yellow should peek through – but it should not be so thick that it mounds on top of the custard. If there's too little sugar, it won’t melt into a solid crust, but if there’s too much it will overwhelm the custard with its burnt flavor. (Use only granulated sugar to top crème brûlée; other sugars will never achieve the sheen and crisp texture you’re going for.) As for technique, broiling in the oven is the most pragmatic option. Keep a close eye on the ramekins and consider rotating them once or twice to help the sugar caramelize evenly.
Vanilla is the only flavor traditionally added to crème brûlée. You can add a split vanilla bean to your saucepan of cream, steep it for 10 minutes and then discard the pod, but I like vanilla extract just fine – supplemented with a glug of Grand Marnier.
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 3 hours, almost entirely unattended
2 cups heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 8 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 300 degrees, and bring a kettle of water to a boil. Put four 8-ounce ramekins in a 9-by-13-inch pan.
Put the cream in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat and cook until it begins to steam, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl and whisk until the mixture is pale yellow and silky, about 1 minute. Whisk in the Grand Marnier and vanilla.
Gradually add the hot cream to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the custard mixture into the ramekins. Add enough boiling water to the 9-by-13-inch pan to come about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then cover the pan with foil and transfer it carefully to the oven. Bake until the custard no longer appears liquid in the center, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the pan and cool for at least 1 hour at room temperature, then cover each ramekin with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to a few days.
Heat the broiler. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons sugar over the top of each custard and broil until the sugar is melted and deeply browned, 3 to 5 minutes. (Or, you can caramelize the sugar with a culinary blowtorch.) Serve.