Kitchen Classic - The Creme Brulee

Chefs agree that a perfect creme brulee should have a creamy, soft, custard filling with crisply caramelised sugar on top. How this is achieved is more contentious. Purists, including Weekend's food columnist Tamasin Day-Lewis, insist that a proper crème brûlée should never see the inside of an oven, but some of the most respected chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, bake theirs.

The second method is easier. Cooking the custard on top of the stove involves lengthy stirring or it will over-heat and go grainy. But it does need to be thick enough to hold a trail for a full second. I use a thermometer and cook until the mixture reaches 75C.

I tried both methods with identical ingredients: sugar, double cream, vanilla and egg yolks. (Some baked recipes use whole eggs, but the whites give a gelled, crème caramel-like quality to the dish.) I found that the stirred custard had a more unctuous quality. The baked custard formed more of a skin on top - useful as a dry surface for the sugar crust. Both were delicious.

The topping

Getting that crisp layer of caramel is the tricky bit. Make sure you use cane sugar, not beet sugar, which tends to burn. Brown sugar might seem a good choice, but it blackens quickly, due to the impurities. Stick to white icing sugar or caster sugar instead.

Now for the action. Heat the grill on the highest setting for at least five minutes, or get your blowtorch ready - professionals don't use those baby "kitchen" models, preferring a full-size plumber's blowlamp. For best results, spread the sugar on a plate and put it in a low oven for a few minutes to dry it out. Sieve the sugar over the pots of custard in a thin, even layer, about as thick as a 10p piece.

Grill the custard close to the heat or blast with the blowtorch until nut-brown and bubbling. If the colour is uneven, tip the pot to spread the darker caramel around. If you like a thicker layer, drench with sugar and repeat. Before serving, put the creme brulees on one side to set for a minute or two. Don't put them in the fridge or leave for more than a couple of hours, or the caramel will melt.

Crème brûlée

Serves 4

  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 4 tbsp caster sugar, plus more for the top
  • 1 pint/500ml double cream
  • 1 vanilla pod

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream to just below boiling point and pour over the egg/sugar mixture, stirring all the time. Slit open the vanilla pod and scrape out the seeds, adding them to the bowl.

To cook on top of the stove

Place the bowl over a pan half full of simmering water; stir with a rubber spatula until the custard thickens. Pour through a sieve into four ramekins. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight.

To cook in the oven

Heat the oven to 110C/225F/gas mark and boil a kettleful of water. Sieve the egg and cream mixture, divide between four ramekins and place in a deep roasting tin. Pour boiling water into the tin to reach halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake for 45 minutes, then chill overnight. Shortly before serving, caramelise the top.

Ideas for crème brûlée

  • Preserved ginger in honey-sweetened custard.
  • Poached apple slices topped with a Calvados-flavoured custard.
  • Raspberries and blueberries.
  • Chopped mango and passion fruit topped with a custard made with coconut cream.


         Xanthe Clay 12:01AM GMT 06 Nov 2004



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