Creme brulee appeared in New Orleans in the early 1980s (Arnaud’s served the first one), and over the years it supplanted the once-universal caramel custard. It’s now on almost every non-Asian menu. The difference between creme brulee and caramel custard is that the former is made with cream and has the sugar crusted on top; the latter is made with milk and has sugar caramelized into a syrup at the bottom of the baking cup.
Creme brulee must be baked very carefully and slowly, or it will not reach its proper perfect semi-flowing state. You can’t do it in standard custard cups; much better are shallow (an inch or so deep) glass or ceramic ramekins or au gratin dishes. They also have to be straight-sided, so there’s no thin rim of custard to burn when you blast the sugar topping.
It is also essential to insulate the bottoms of the dishes from the pan they’re sitting on. Those air-insulated baking pans work well. If you don’t have one, you can get the same effect by setting a wet dishtowel in the bottom.
I strongly recommend you get hold of Ronald Reginald’s Vanilla Bean Marinade for this. It’s a great vanilla created by Chef Warren LeRuth and made here in New Orleans. The actual vanilla beans in the bottle not only give flavor but those appealing vanilla bean flecks.
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1 quart whipping cream
- 9 large egg yolks
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 Tbs. Ronald Reginald’s Vanilla Bean Marinade (or some other top-class, powerful vanilla)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
1. The first step is not essential, but does give an extra measure of elegance. Spread the brown sugar out, breaking all the lumps, on a big plate. Put it into the microwave oven for 10 minutes at 10 percent power, then let it cool for 30 minutes. This will remove the excess moisture from the brown sugar and keep it from turning to syrup when you blast it later.
2. Combine 1/4 cup of cream and the egg yolks in a metal bowl, and whisk to blend well. Stir in the sugar until nearly dissolved.
3. Put the rest of the cream into a small saucepan and heat it over medium heat until wisps of steam start appearing. (Don’t boil even a little.)
4. Add the vanilla to the warm cream. Stir, then pour the warm cream slowly into the metal bowl while whisking.
5. Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a large measuring cup. Pour the custard into the baking dishes.
6. Pour hot water into the pan until it’s halfway up the sides of the baking dishes. Put the pan into the preheated 325-degree oven and bake for 30 minutes. Depending on what dishes you’re using, it may take as long as another 15 minutes. The custard should be set but not solid.
8. Remove the dishes from the pan and set out to cool for a half hour, then refrigerate for at least three hours, or as long as a day.
9. When ready to serve, preheat the broiler. (Or the broil feature of your toaster oven, which works better for this than you might imagine.) Sprinkle enough brown sugar on top of each custard to completely cover, and run them under the broiler for about 30 seconds–until the sugar melts. You might want to turn the dishes so that this happens uniformly.