Playing with Fire Creme Brulee

What is the world coming to? Last week in the New York Times Kim Severson reported on the International Home and Housewares show held in Chicago. I read the piece because I always enjoy Ms. Severson’s work and because I love fantasizing about kitchens bigger than mine with budgets to match. My mouth fell when I got to the part where she described a new Frigidaire oven that includes a specific button on its control panel for chicken nuggets. Is this a joke? It was bad enough when microwaves started including popcorn settings but chicken nuggets? Okay, I’m not going to rag on the convenience of that much heralded and welcome staple found in the kitchen of every parent to a picky eater—even if they are made with parts of the bird you don’t want to imagine ingesting. I don’t have kids and it isn’t fair for me to throw a stone when conceivably I could find myself living in a glass house. No, I am going to rag on the laziness behind not being able to press (or dial if your oven is more than a few years old) 4-0-0. Did that really take so much energy? All you had to do was open a box or a bag and pour the frozen chunks onto a baking sheet and now you want a special button? Come on!
The gist of the article seemed to be that our land has become one of “push-button cooking.” Despite eyes glued to The Food Network and fans of Martha, Rachael, and Paula, most people consider cooking to really mean re-heating. And with appliance and food manufacturers running on the same team in the relay race, there are gadgets to help them.
Now, I’m all for fun kitchen toys but think of how many you have that you probably haven’t played with since you registered for them at Williams-Sonoma. Okay, maybe you unpacked them, placed them all new and shiny on your counter and felt kind of professional with your bread machine or panini press or margarita maker. Then you realized you valued your counter space more than the ability to make a margarita every Cinco de Mayo and put everything in your attic/garage/basement or way up top on a shelf you never get up to.
I am not guilt-free in this area, despite never having registered for anything. However, my gadgets are smaller due to my lack of space. There were the three lattes I enjoyed before my battery operated milk frother died a slow, stop and start death. There was the coffee grinder I have repurposed for burring flax seeds after my morning fog proved too much of a challenge for the work a freshly ground cup of joe entailed. Oh well. But now I find myself reconsidering a gift I received two years ago: a “Crème Brulee Torch.”
There are two reasons behind my resistance towards attempting home bruleed crème. One is that most recipes make at least four servings and although I can entertain another personne ici having three others for dinner could be a little tight. The other is the queasy memory this specific custard evokes. Not queasy because of the dessert, queasy because of the circumstances. You see, I had the most transcendent blueberry crème brulee at The Union Square Café in the late 80’s. To put you in the vibe of the time Kelly McGillis (if you're too young to know she co-starred with Tom Cruise in Top Gun, I hate you) was at the restaurant that night and the place was abuzz with a celebrity induced frisson. But, more importantly, I shouldn’t have been there at all because I was being taken to dinner by someone who was already taken. Very poor judgment on my part but I was young and dumb and it soon faded (er, exploded) away leaving the mark of that ill gotten crème brulee in its wake.
But I think twenty years has to be the statute of limitations for denying myself such a delicate but rich, silky but crunchy and altogether sublime dessert. I’m heading to my parents’ house to break my brulee-less streak. Have torch will travel! And I know my mother won’t be making dinner with the push of a button.

Note: If you don't have a torch don't worry, you can use your oven's broiler.

Playing with Fire Creme Brulee
adapted from The New York Times, March 27, 2009
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2 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar, more for topping
1 Tablespoon favorite liqueur (optional)
1/2 cup berries of your choice (optional)

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

In a saucepan, combine cream and vanilla bean and cook over low heat just until hot.
Let sit for a few minutes, then discard vanilla bean. (OR if using vanilla extract, add it now.) At this point you can add about a Tablespoon of any favorite liqueur for extra flavor. Or not.In a bowl, beat yolks and sugar together until light.
Stir about a quarter of the cream into this mixture, then pour sugar-egg mixture back into the remaining cream and stir.
If you'd like your creme brulee to be fruity you could put a handful of berries in the bottom of each ramekin and proceed as directed below. Or not.

Pour into four 6-ounce ramekins and place ramekins in a baking dish;
fill dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the dishes.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until centers are barely set. Cool. Ramekins can be wrapped tightly and refrigerated for a couple of days.

When ready to serve, top each custard with 2-3 teaspoons of sugar in a thin layer.
Fire up torch and hold the flame close to the surface until sugar begins to melt quickly. Move the flame in small circles over the surface of the custard, heating the sugar until it is evenly melted and golden.
Place ramekins in a broiler 2 to 3 inches from heat source. Turn on broiler. Cook until sugar melts and browns or even blackens a bit, about 5 minutes.

Let sit for a minute or two until sugar hardens and serve. Yield: 4 servings


Kimberly said...

I am so glad you left the icky brulee of past memories behind you to bring this goody back! Oh MY GOSH, this looks insanely good. Now I just have to figure out a dairy-free version :) Hmm.. 2 cups of heavy cream can be replaced by..NOTHING! Looks worth a stomach ache.

Joseph St. Cyr said...

I didn't know Paula Dean was in "Valley of the Dolls." The things one learns on these blogs!