Classic Crème Brûlée

Crème brûlée can be made in a single large pan or, for neater, more luxurious presentation, in individual ramekins. The wide, shallow white porcelain ramekins used in restaurants are perfect—little depth, all surface. The crucial part, of course, is the crackly sugar surface, but the custard is important, too—this is the time to pull out all the stops and use real cream.

This recipe is based on one from Dieter Schorner, a gifted pastry chef who occasionally taught at New York City Community College when I was a student there. Dieter was the pastry chef at New York’s Le Cirque, the epicenter from which crème brûlée hysteria swept the nation.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups (1 quart) heavy cream
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 8 large egg yolks
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar, or to taste

Method

  1. In a small saucepan, scald the cream with the vanilla bean over medium heat. Remove from the heat. (If you have time, let the vanilla bean steep in the milk for 30 to 60 minutes. Reheat before proceeding.) Place eight 6-ounce ramekins in a roasting pan; set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F, with a rack in the center. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks just until blended. Slowly whisk in the sugar. Remove the vanilla bean from the hot cream and scrape the seeds into the cream. Slowly beat the hot cream into the yolks, whisking all the time. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a large measuring cup or pitcher. Pour the custard into the ramekins.
  3. Place the roasting pan on the center rack of the oven. Pour in enough hot tap water to reach about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custards are just set, about 30 minutes (the timing can vary based on the depth of the ramekins). Remove the custards from their water bath and place on a wire rack until cooled.
  4. Refrigerate until very cold, at least 3 hours.
  5. Shortly before serving, preheat the broiler with the rack about 3 inches from the heat. Sieve a thin, even layer of the brown sugar over the custards. Place under the broiler just until the sugar melts, usually less than 1 minute (watch carefully to prevent burning). Serve immediately.