Does the creme really need to be brûlée? No. Because really, once you bake the custard in a bain marie, it's cooked, and perfectly edible. And of course there are plenty of baked custards that aren't made with a burnt sugar topping: flan or creme caramel, for example. But the crunch of the caramelised sugar with the silky custard underneath is just such an enjoyable sensation that the extra step to make the caramelised sugar layer is totally worth it.
Is the bain-marie essential? Yes, because it keeps the hot oven air moist for the top of the custard and also protects the delicate egg custards from curdling or breaking.
Flavour-wise, I find that the classic vanilla custard is best, perhaps with the addition of a complementary addition like citrus, almond, or hazelnut liqueur. If you must, serve berries or other accompaniments separately rather than adding into the custard. If you're adding solid flavourings like a scraped vanilla bean, citrus rind, nutmeg, etc. then certainly strain the custard before pouring into ramekins. Also strain if your egg yolk mixture wasn't properly tempered and has bits of curdled yolk - it happens sometimes, it won't affect the flavour of the custard so keep calm and strain on.
Also resist the temptation to make the caramelised sugar layer more than 5 minutes in advance of serving - the sugar will just melt into the custard and you won't have a crunchy layer anymore. When you caramelise the sugar, the chilled custard underneath quickly cools the caramel and hardens it, creating that crunchiness. But it has to be done *just* before serving.
Makes: 6 servings
- 6 large egg yolks
- 7 tablespoons sugar
- 2-1/4 cups whipping cream
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp. Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur (optional)
- 6-8 ceramic ramekins
- 2 in. or deeper oven-safe pan large enough to hold the ramekins (if you don't have a pan large enough to hold all ramekins, bake the custard in batches)
Caramelised Sugar Crust
- 3-4 tbsp. sugar (I use turbinado or demerara sugar but white sugar will work)
- a working blow-torch to make the burnt sugar crust
- Preheat oven to 325 F / 165 C.
- Bring cream to simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and let it settle for 5 minutes.
- Whisk egg yolks and 7 tbsp. sugar in a medium bowl until thick and pale yellow, about 2 minutes.
- Temper the yolk mixture so it doesn't curdle and get lumpy:
- Mix in 4 tbsp. (1/4 cup) hot cream into the yolk mixture. Repeat.
- Whisk in the remaining hot cream into the yolk mixture. Whisk in Grand Marnier and vanilla.
- Divide custard among the ramekins. Arrange the ramekins in the oven-safe pan. Make a bain-marie to protect the custards while baking:
- Pour hot water into the pan to be level with the custard inside the ramekins. The water will protect the custard from browning / burning.
- Bake custards until gently set in center, 25 - 30 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the oven and remove the custards from the bain-marie.
- Cool custards completely and refrigerate uncovered until fully set and chilled, 3 - 24 hrs.
- Just before serving, make the burnt sugar crust:
- Remove the custards from the fridge and sprinkle an even layer of 1/2 tbsp. sugar onto each.
- Use the blow-torch per instructions to burn the sugar - you will see it melt. Let it sit for a minute or so and serve.