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According to Crème Brûlée
© Mother Linda's
You may find my methods
unconventional, but I can tell a lot about restaurants by the quality of the crème
brûlée they serve—as it reveals more than one can imagine.
Let’s start with the color. Is it an insipid pale yellow or deep
bright hue? All eggs have the
genetic potential to be equal, but I've found that how the chickens are fed
greatly impacts the finished egg and is most evident in the color of the yolk. Do this experiment yourself. Buy a dozen
eggs from a small organic-egg and
-chicken producer in your area and another dozen from the local
supermarket. Crack a couple eggs from each carton together into a bowl. I
guarantee you will see a marked difference between the yolks. The store-bought
will be a much paler yellow and usually smaller, while the farmer's eggs will be
dark yellow and larger. Some farm-raised eggs have bright orange yolks. These
are perfect for crème
This difference comes from the diet. Though many egg cartons now claim their
chickens are "free-ranged," unfortunately it isn't dependable labeling
anymore. Some confinement egg producers leave a small door for the
chickens to exit the confinement sheds, even if they never do. Some let them
roam around inside big barns, where they never see a blade of grass. The new
standard is "pasture-fed" eggs. The term usually
means that in addition to receiving supplemental grains, the chickens are allowed to
forage on pasture where they can incorporate wild plants and bugs rich in
omega-3s into their diet.
While you might not find
these best-quality eggs at the local supermarket anytime soon, organic food
stores usually carry several kinds, and more and more restaurants are
pioneering farm-to-restaurant connections with small egg producers. Patronize
these restaurants and you will encounter the best crème brûlée. One of my
favorite DC restaurants creates this timeless French classic with the
bright-orange egg yolks from free-roaming chickens raised on Amish and Mennonite
farms in Pennsylvania. It is something to emulate.
The next consideration is
the quality of cream and milk and their proportions. Many a cheap restaurant
will try to “milk down” its crème brûlée by cutting down on the amount
of cream it uses. The ideal proportion is 3:1, i.e., 3 cups cream to 1 cup
milk. Containing no starch for thickening, crème brûlée is by definition
custard and not pudding, but recipes that alter the ratio of cream to milk end
up being no more than glorified flan—and definitely not worth the high price.
You will be able to discern this adulteration the moment your spoon cuts into
the cream. By the way, never use UHT milk or cream.
Although you cannot expect
restaurants to make crème brûlée with fresh raw milk and cream, I do it
at home. Find a farm that will sell to you and treat yourself to an even higher
grade of this wonderful dessert. I should mention that too few egg yolks can
also contribute to a custardy end product instead of a creamy one.
Before you get to the crème,
you must break through the bruléed sugar topping. Is it hard and crunchy? It
should be and it will be if the crème was made far enough in advance and given
the chance to cool properly. A cold crème helps the caramelized, molten sugar
on top of the crème to cool quickly and become crunchy. If the crème is too
warm, it cannot adequately cool the caramel. You will then find yourself trying
to spoon through a messy topping that is not cooperating. To me, such a poor-quality crème brûlée is
a sign of a disorganized kitchen—one that has not
properly planned ahead to have enough of one of its patrons favorite desserts on
Restaurants use industrial-size torches that are impractical for
the home. Investing in a little handheld torchière that runs on butane gas is much preferable to
trying to caramelize the sugar under a broiler. The chef, not the broiler, should
be in charge of the subtleties that surround getting the best golden finish. And
last but not least, use superfine sugar. It will make all the
Finally, we get to the
bottom of the crème. Did you find some tiny vanilla seeds there? You will if
the crème brûlée is of superior quality. To get the best flavor, the vanilla
bean must be steeped in the cream/milk mixture to become softer—so it can be opened
easily with a knife and the seeds scooped out for addition to the
cream/milk mixture. Only the cheapest restaurants would add vanilla extract instead of the whole bean. This
fundamental error is reason to
strike any restaurant from your list of favorites.
What is the perfect dish
for crème brûlée? I use French-made ceramic Apilco No. 5 ceramic ramekins. There are
many imitations. But again, the quality of the ramekin in a restaurant will tell
you a lot about its kitchen practices and whether it values profits over quality.
Mother Linda’s Crème
If you don’t skimp on the
ingredients and bake ware, you will end up with the most incredible creamy
dessert that tells your family and guests a lot of good things about your kitchen. Makes 8
cups fresh cream
cup fresh milk
whole vanilla bean
tsp. superfine sugar, per ramekin
In a heavy-bottomed
saucepan on low, heat the cream, milk, and sugar. Stir the sugar to dissolve and
then add the vanilla bean. Continue to heat until small bubbles appear around the
edges, but do not allow it to boil. Remove from heat and cool for 10-15 minutes,
while letting the vanilla bean soften.
Remove the vanilla bean
from the cream, split open lengthwise with a sharp knife, and scrape the tiny
seeds from the pod. Add the seeds to the cream, and discard the pod. Set a kettle on to boil some water.
Whisk the egg yolks into
the cooled cream mixture, and then strain through a sieve to remove any unbeaten
egg. Pour about ½ cup of the mixture into each of eight No. 5 Apilco ceramic
ramekins. Set the ramekins in a deep-sided baking dish--or a crème brûlée kit
like the one to the left. Pour enough boiling
water into the baking dish or kit to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake at
325ºF for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Remove the baking dish from
the oven, and let the ramekins cool. Transfer to the refrigerator and let the
crème cool completely overnight, or for at least four hours.
Just before serving, remove
the crème from the refrigerator and sprinkle the custard in each ramekin evenly with 1-2 tsp.
superfine sugar. Using a handheld torchière, caramelize the sugar until golden
brown. Let the ramekin set for a few minutes before serving so the sugar can cool and harden to perfection.
you have any crème brûlée insights? I would love to hear them.
posted January 19, 2005.
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