Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Creme brulee

Creme brulee. Photo by Steve Shanahan

First published Canberra Times 20 June 2012

What springs to mind when you hear the crack of a spoon against the golden, brittle surface of a creme brulee? For me, it’s Amelie, from the iconic French movie, where she plays a waitress who delights in cracking the toffee of creme brulee with a small spoon.

Creme brulee is one of those dishes that consistently delivers eating pleasure. As a true fanatic, when I sit down to this dessert, like Amelie, it’s to the exclusion of everything else. What if the house was burning down, or there was a medical emergency? It’s all fine with my world, I’m eating my creme brulee.

The voluptuousness of this refined classic, lies in the silkiness of the custard and is difficult to match in the comfort stakes, which makes it a perfect winter sweet. I’m pretty fussy about the temperature of my food, and I believe the flavour of this dessert is enhanced when it’s eaten at room temperature or just warmed. This means that when the toffee is cracked with the tap of a spoon, the custard oozes out through the cracks.

It’s probably timely to mention the whole ‘enhancement’ thing here. It seems that creamy and unctuous is not enough, because many chefs seem to insist on adding nuts, fruit and even oats to creme brulee’s on their menus. The traditional brulee is a simple cooked cream and egg custard that doesn’t need the bells and whistles of foreign bodies. Its perfection lies in its simplicity.

Although, ever a creme brulee traditionalist, when eating out recently, the French waiter delivered the ubiquitous dessert to our table with a flourish, and recommended for ultimate perfection, to drizzle a little Grand Marnier over the cracked toffee. Shock, horror, he was right.

Serves six

500ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out
100g caster sugar
6 egg yolks
extra caster sugar for toffee brittle
Grand Marnier

Preheat the oven to 150C. Heat the cream and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the whole vanilla pod and vanilla seeds, then lower the heat and simmer gently for five minutes. Remove the vanilla pod and discard.

Place a tea towel or silicone mat on a work surface and place a large heatproof bowl on it. Place the egg yolks into the bowl and whisk by hand until pale and creamy.

Bring the cream back to boiling point, then pour a thin stream of about half a cup into the egg mixture, whisking all the time. This will loosen the yolks and allow them to accept the hot cream without curdling. Gradually add the remainder of the cream, whisking continuously.

Strain the custard mixture through a fine sieve into a large jug for pouring. Fill six ovenproof ramekins to about two thirds full with the custard.

Place the ramekins in a large roasting tray and carefully pour in enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Place on the centre shelf of the preheated oven and bake for about twenty to thirty minutes. The custards are done when just wobbly in the middle.  They will continue to cook slightly when taken out.

Remove each ramekin from the roasting tray and allow to cool to room temperature. When cooled, you can cover them with cling wrap until just before serving or stored in the refrigerator for later use.

When ready to serve, pre-heat the grill to very hot. Sprinkle one teaspoon of caster sugar evenly over the surface of each custard. Tipping slightly to ensure even coverage. Place the custards, a few at the time, under the grill, until bubbling and dark golden. Be very watchful, and stay with them to see that they don’t burn. They should be a dark brown. Leave to set and harden before eating.

If you own a mini blowtorch for scorching the sugar, hold the flame about twenty centimetres from the custard surface and only for a few seconds, moving it around. The sugar will continue cooking after you take it away from the flame. 

Serve immediately. Like the waiter said, if you want even greater perfection, try adding a tablespoon of Grand Marnier drizzled into the cracked toffee.