Crème Brulée

It has been said that the ideal test for the skills of a chef is the simple omelet, because it is the simple things that are the hardest to accomplish perfectly. I would say that the ideal test for a pastry chef is the simple crème brulée. For me, perfect crème brulée is cool and silky smooth, just firm enough to hold its shape when spooned, with a glass-hard thin, even, dark caramel topping.

It is rarely prepared exactly this way, I suspect because many restaurant chefs are too impatient to bake the custard slowly for one and a half hours or to pour on caramel cooked separately instead of melting sugar on top of the custard under the broiler or with a propane torch. But these two techniques are the secret of perfect crème brulée.

Before tiramisù became the ne plus ultra trendy dessert, and crème brulée was still in the Number I position, all sorts of variations appeared. I disliked them all. I thought that one could not possibly improve on the sublime perfection of a perfectly made crème brulée-until I tasted Jim Dodge’s version, containing four ripe raspberries that miraculously didn’t seem to cook in the custard.

My recipe for crème brulée was inspired by the first truly great one I ever experienced, at the Hayes Street Café in San Francisco. This part of the country is blessed with an exceptionally warm and generous food community I have always enjoyed and valued. No sooner did I beg for the recipe than it appeared at our table. The only changes I made were the addition of vanilla beans for the glorious flavor and subtle, barely perceptible crunch, and the method of caramelizing the topping. The restaurant’s balance of sugar, cream and yolk and slow, even method of baking could not be improved upon.

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Up to 8 hours before serving, make the caramel topping.

*If you have a high-humidity refrigerator such as a Traulsen or you live in a humid location, do not make the caramel until shortly before serving. Because the caramel heats up the crème, however, the crème then needs to be chilled for at least 1 hour before serving.

Unpreheated oven: 250°F.
Cooking time: 1½ hours
Chilling time: at least 1 hour
KEEPS: 2 days.
volume ounces grams
heavy cream 3 liquid cups
¼ Tahitian vanilla bean,* split lengthwise
½ Madagascar vanilla bean, split lengthwise
8 large egg yolks scant cup 1.25 ounces 150 grams
sugar cup 2.33 ounces 67 grams
pure vanilla extract ¾ teaspoon
OPTIONAL: 32 raspberries 1 scant cup 3.5 ounces 100 grams
sugar ½ cup 3.5 ounces 100 grams
water 3 tablespoons

*Available in specialty food stores such as Dean & DeLuca. Or use a total of 1 Madgascar vanilla bean. If vanilla beans are unavailable, increase the vanilla extract to teaspoons.


Place the ramekins on top of the parchment in the roasting pan.

In a small saucepan, heat the cream and vanilla beans just until very hot. Do not boil. (Or heat in a heatproof glass measure in a microwave on high power.)

In a medium bowl, with a wooden spoon, stir together the yolks and sugar until blended. Remove the vanilla beans from the cream (do not discard) and gradually stir the heavy cream into the egg mixture; stir slowly to prevent bubbles. Strain the mixture through a fine strainer into a 4-cup glass measure or bowl, preferably with a spout.

With a sharp knife, scrape the vanilla seeds into the mixture. Stir gently to separate the seeds. (Fingertips work best for this.) Stir in the vanilla extract.

If adding the raspberries, place 4 in each ramekin. Pour the custard into the ramekins, and pour enough hot tap water around the ramekins to come halfway up their sides.

Set the pan in the oven and turn it on to 250°F. Bake, without opening the oven door, for 1½ hours. (A knife inserted into the center will not come out clean.)

Remove the ramekins from the hot water bath and allow them to cool.

Cover each ramekin tightly with plastic wrap (preferably Saran brand), being careful not to touch the surface of the custard with it. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to 2 days. If liquid should form on the surface of the custards, blot it gently with paper towels.

Have ready a heatproof glass measure, sprayed with nonstick vegetable spray or greased, near the range.

In a heavy saucepan (preferably with a nonstick lining), stir together the sugar and water until the sugar is completely moistened. Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup is bubbling. Stop stirring completely and allow the syrup to boil undisturbed until it turns a deep amber (340° to 370°F. on a candy thermometer). Immediately remove from the heat and pour into the glass measure to stop the cooking.

Quickly pour a very thin layer of caramel (½ tablespoon) onto each custard. Rotate each ramekin quickly to spread the caramel evenly. It will bubble up but quickly settle into a glass-smooth glaze. If the caramel should become too thick to pour in thin layers, you can place it in the microwave for a few seconds on high power to reliquify it.

Refrigerate the crème brulée, uncovered, for at least 1 hour or up to 8 hours.