Crème Brulée

Many moons ago, I thought Crème Brulée was one of life’s mysteries. It always looked hard to make. And then there was that burnt (allegedly caramelized) crusty bit on the top. How did THAT happen?

After cooking school, I never gave it much thought. But then it all started up again, when Karen and I had the most memorable (and it still is) Key Lime Crème Brulée at the Ritz in Naples. Yeah, that would be Florida, not Italy. It had the perfect blend of creaminess, flavor, and location. Of all the recipes I tried to recreate, that was never one of them. I think it was best to let it have it own place in our food world.

Anyway, crème brulée never was one of the desserts I made, or wanted to make. I tended towards cookies, cakes, fruit cobblers, etc. It just wasn’t on the radar screen, and I hadn’t made one since cooking school. Until two nights ago.

I’d agreed to do a dinner for seven people, and thought I’d knock their socks off with some pots de crème, that fab dessert that I like to call, “French Shake-a-Pudding.” But wait. The hostess asked for crème brulée. I tried to charm my way out of it. Shockingly, it didn’t work. So I agreed to do it. Of course, I hadn’t made one in 15 years, Oops.

So, I looked up a few recipes, merged them together, and came up with an edible recipe. Of course, while I am semi-confident in my abilities, I don’t have the near-god complex of trying out a crème brulée recipe on my customers for the first time. So I made it two nights ago. Bingo! It mostly worked. The texture was fine, but it needed more vanilla and sugar. So I did it again. Oh my, and ooooh baby! It was good enough to put a cardiologist on my speed dial. Then I tried torching it. No, I didn’t call an arsonist. I sprinkled some sugar over the top, broke out the blowtorch, and made a crusty, caramelized sugar topping. It was a near-religious experience. And when I made them for the dinner last night, they were happy. Not only did they love these boffo custards, but they loved the show-and-tell when I torched all seven of them. The custards, that is. I swear, I have the funnest job on the planet.

Next big thing? Apparently, it’s Key Lime Crème Brulée.

Oh yeah. Here’s my recipe:

Crème Brulée
(adapted from La Varenne Pratique, by Ann Willan)

2 cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks
11 tablespoons (approximately) sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 ramekins or wide custard cups, approx 3/4 cup each
1 roasting pan
a blowtorch or a broiler

Preheat the oven to 400°.

In a saucepan, scald the cream.

While the cream is heating, whisk the yolks and three tablespoons of sugar together until the yolks get a bit thick. Add in the vanilla.

When the cream is scalded, using a wooden spoon, SLOWLY stir it into the yolks. When it’s all combined, pour the mixture through a strainer into a pitcher (to get rid of any heated egg bits) . Pour the mixture into the four ramekins.

Place the ramekins into the roasting pan, and add cold water to the pan to come half-way up the sides of the ramekins. Place in the oven, and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until a skin starts to form on the top of the custard. Remove from the oven and the pan. The custard will still be liquidy.

Cool the cups on a cooling rack for at least 15 minutes, and refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours, but overnight is okay too.

10 minutes before serving the crème brulée, sprinkle the remaining sugar over the tops of the custard. That is, approximately two tablespoons per ramekin.

To caramelize the sugar:

Method #1: With a hardware store propane or butane torch, carefully point the flame directly onto the sugar. In moments, it will start to bubble and turn brown. Do this to the whole top of the custard. Let it cool for a few minutes before serving. By then, the sugared top will be crunchy.

Method #2: Carefully place the ramekins under the broiler, until the sugar turns brown. Do not let the custard get hot and start to cook. Remove from broiler. Let it cool for a few minutes before serving. By then, the sugared top will be crunchy.

Tomatoes Gone Wild!

Tonight was a wild night at the cooking class. It started out as a raucous affair, and got silly from there. I checked on the way home, and there wasn’t a full moon. Go figure…

So what was the source of such giddiness? Tomatoes. I led off the Fall season classes with tomatoes. Here in New England, we have a 3+ month window of opportunity with fresh, local produce. Corn. Squashes. Herbs. And a metric ton o’tomatoes. And if the weather gods are nice, we might have another month of tomatoes before the first frost arrives. So, my class at Different Drummer’s Kitchen ( in Northampton had some fun recipes, from an orzo salad with tomatoes, kalimata olives, and feta cheese, to a simple tomato sauce with mussels, shrimp, and scallops to caponata, with roasted tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. And while the menu was a fun one, the crowd was a riot starting before the 6:15 opening bell. They were laughing, jumping in with questions and comments, and having a great time. And so was I. I even forgot to add an ingredient. And they let me know. It was the perfect evening.

But it dawned on me this afternoon, as I was getting ready for the class, that the theme of the night wasn’t just tomatoes, but cheese and tomatoes. The perfect/classic combo. From simple cheddar sandwiches to grilled cheese to pizza to nachos, they go together because they complement each other. One of the dishes, from chef and food writer Betty Rosbottom, was a tart with tomatoes and melted bleu cheese. Oh. My . Gawd. It was perfection.

But the lighter foods had them happy, too. I took my basic, light and fast tomato sauce, and added mussels, shrimp, and scallops. Tossed on some parmesan, and the crowd was happy. Which brings up two more parts of it. The evening was tomatoes. Cheese. And easy foods. And the class liked the food. Does it get any better? Or more fun? Nope.

And here’s one of the recipes:

Everyday Fast Tomato Sauce (with seafood, too)

2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
8-10 tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1 28 oz canned tomatoes (diced or whole)
1/4 cup white wine
6 oz (1 small can) tomato paste (optional)
1 tablespoon basil (fresh or dried)
salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan, over a medium-high heat, add the olive oil, and then the garlic. Sauté for 20-30 seconds, until it becomes fragrant. Add the tomatoes and wine. Bring to a simmer. Add the (optional) tomato paste if the sauce is too watery. Simmer for 10-30 minutes, depending on how much time you have.

Five minutes before the sauce is ready, add the basil, salt and pepper. Check the seasoning five minutes after the basil is added. Adjust the salt and pepper as needed.

Makes enough sauce to cover 1 pound of pasta.

With seafood:

A few minutes after you add the basil, add the seafood. It will all be cooked within 5 minutes, or to your liking. Seafood can include shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, salmon, swordfish, etc. How much to add: how about a total of 1 1/2 pounds. That’ll be enough, with some extra.

Makes 4+ servings.