Adventures in Cooking: Creme Brulee

I confess – I have a real thing for food. Ever since I was a little girl, food has had a language all its own, starting with my Italian grandmother’s fresh cannoli, which she made “just for me” (and my brother and our cousins) and fed to us in secret before the Sunday meal as a treat. Food is love, and – for me – sometimes in unhealthy ways.

But, oh… a good creme brulee? Please.

No, really. Please.

Some time back, The Pioneer Woman featured creme brulee on her Food Network show. My foodie friend Chris and I promised ourselves that we would make it soon, together, like perhaps even for Easter, which was going to be just our two families, so we wouldn’t have to make it for a group of 93 people as sometimes happens for big holidays. However, Easter turned out to be a lot of work for a bunch of other reasons, and by the time it rolled around, we were all completely exhausted. Nick wound up cooking Easter dinner (it was delicious) and Chris and I (and his wife, my best friend Kimmy) wound up collapsing on the couch.

But a couple of weeks ago, my Bountiful Baskets add-on included not one but two enormous vanilla beans. Oh my word. Fresh vanilla smells amazing, and really different from what comes in the little jar, even when it’s the real extract and not the fake stuff. So I decided I would make creme brulee, even if it wasn’t a special occasion, because… well, FRESH VANILLA BEAN.

Ree’s recipe for the stuff is heavy on the egg yolk, which I like – an eggy custard is so, so good. I modified it a tiny bit by adding a capful of almond extract – I just love the way the almond and vanilla come together. And I cannot even begin to tell you how amazing the cream, vanilla, and almond smelled within moments of being introduced to one another in this saucepan. Holy cannoli.

Francesca Watson Designs
While the cream was heating up and all that vanilla goodness was filling the air, I separated ten eggs. And can I just say how much I love this little contraption?

Francesca Watson Designs
Hook it over the side of the bowl, crack the egg into it, then pick it up and rock it slowly back and forth until the egg white drops off. (I saved my egg whites to make French Meringues, which were the basis of a dessert my other best friend Shere made for me for my birthday. O.M.G.)

The custard really was just as simple as combining the egg yolk mixture with the cream mixture and pouring it into the ramekins. The toughest part was finding enough (mismatched) ramekins and getting the water bath just right – I discovered my oven is not completely level, which is not surprising since it’s original to the house (late 70’s), and that carefully pouring the water in the pan without splashing it into the custard while trying to take a photo is a little challenging. (Please pay no attention to the fact that apparently my oven really needs to be cleaned.)

Francesca Watson Designs
Now, here’s a little tip: see the foam on the top of the custard? I was so proud of the fact the custard was so light and fluffy. Turns out that foam = bad when it comes to custard, so within 15 minutes of going into the oven, all my pretty little custard dishes developed brown skins on the top and shrank half an inch. I was using the Food Network version of the recipe, but when I found it on Ree’s site (which is the link I’m using above), it included a tip to skim off any foam (not included in the Food Network version). I’ll know for next time.

I baked these for exactly 42 minutes – at 40 minutes they were still a little too jiggly. Then I let them cool on wire racks before popping them into the refrigerator. And when the time came to put that oh-so-delicious sugar crust on top? Perfection. Just… perfection.

Francesca Watson Designs
If you’re like me and prefer an extra-thick and dark crust on your creme brulee, here’s another tip: sprinkle a heaping teaspoon of sugar evenly across the top of the custard, and use a kitchen torch to make it dark brown and bubbly. Let it cool, then sprinkle on another heaping teaspoon. Use the torch again, and the second layer of sugar will melt into the first, without burning the custard underneath. And see all the flecks of vanilla? Yum.

Francesca Watson Designs
I would say that my first attempt at creme brulee was successful! The browned tops didn’t change the texture or taste of the custard at all (though they burned around the edges when I used the torch) – they were creamy and light and eggy and just-right sweet. And the almond added a nice depth while still allowing the fresh vanilla to shine. So good, and not nearly as complicated as I feared – I will definitely be making this recipe again, with an eye towards making them look a little prettier. Thank you, Ree!

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