Like most people, I have many dishes that I remember from childhood that I’m nostalgic about, often irrespective of (or in spite of) their objective qualities: pizzas made from pitta bread, ketchup, wafer thin ham and bagged, grated cheddar; my granny’s gravy, which must have been 90% red wine; Mum’s extremely inauthentic but delicious bolognese. But although all of those dishes were woven through my childhood, they were exactly that: woven. I couldn’t begin to unpick the threads and recollect the first time I ate any of them, they just formed part of the background to life.
Crème brûlée is different. I can tell you exactly where I was when I ate my first crème brûlée. I was in the Hotel de la Gare in a small town in Normandy, called Gavray on holiday with my family. I must have been about 11 years old. Actually, to be accurate, it wasn’t my crème brûlée, it was my Dad’s. Offered a single spoonful of Dad’s pudding, I immediately abandoned my clearly inferior ice cream in favour of appropriating and then inhaling Dad’s dish. The shock of the bitter, dark caramel, glassy and in tact, giving way to cool, impossibly rich cream, speckled with black vanilla seed, was mind-boggling. That must have been the first or second night of our summer holiday, and I demanded my own crème brûlée every night thereafter until we went home.
Perhaps the reason that first occasion has stayed with me so strongly, where other things I ate during my childhood have amalgamated and become indistinct, is because crème brûlée felt so grown up. In fact, it didn’t just feel grown up: it tasted like I imagined being a grown up felt. Over the subsequent 21 years, the grown up bit turned out to be a disappointment, but the allure of crème brûlée holds strong.
To my surprise when I first tried to recreate this pudding at home, it wasn’t anywhere near as tricky as the sophisticated end-product would lead you to believe. And, of course, the vast majority of the pudding is made in advance and then chilled down, placing it in my favourite pudding category: impressive, yet perfect to make-ahead.
There are two different ways of making a crème brûlée: some have you thicken the custard before you bake them, others don’t. It’s slightly faffier to thicken the custard first but, for my money, it’s absolutely worth it (it’s also the traditional way, and those French cooks do know their stuff). Thickening the custard before baking ensures a satin-smooth final custard that is thicker and less wibbly than the other version – and it provides the perfect counterpoint to the glassy caramel layer.
A big part of the joy of a crème brûlée is that smokey, mahogany layer that you can smash with the back of your spoon – so take your time with the brûléeing, making sure that the whole top of the pudding is properly caramelised, and that you’ve taken it to a golden-brown that will give you all those fantastically complex burnt-sugar notes.
Makes: 4 puddings
Takes: 15 minutes
Bakes: 40 minutes
600ml double cream
5 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 120°C and place four 175ml ramekins in a roasting tin.
2. Pour the cream into a medium-sized saucepan and place over a medium heat. Cut the vanilla pod in half length-ways, and scrape out the seeds with the back of your knife. Put these seeds and the scraped vanilla pod into the cream, and heat until steaming.
3. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and caster sugar together in a medium-sized bowl until the mixture is noticeably paler than when you began.
4. When the cream is steaming, fish out the vanilla pod and discard. Pour a stream of the hot milk onto the egg yolk mixture and whisk straight away to combine. Now pour the egg yolk mixture back into the milk pan and, using a spatula, stir continually over a low heat until the custard thickens. You’ll know it’s ready when, if you dip a spoon into the custard and then draw a line through the custard with your finger, the line remains without the custard rushing back into fill it.
5. Once the custard has thickened, pour it through a sieve into a jug. Divide the mixture in the jug between the four ramekins. Boil the kettle and fill the roasting tin with hot water until it comes about half way up the ramekins. Carefully transfer to the oven, and bake for 40 minutes.
6. Once baked, remove the ramekins from their roasting tin and, when cool, refrigerate until properly chilled.
7. Sprinkle a tablespoon of light brown sugar on top of each pudding. Brûlée slowly and steadily with a blow torch, or transfer briefly to a hot grill to caramelise. If you grill the puddings, keep a close eye on them, as they can move from brûléed to, well, burnt, very quickly – and give them proper time to cool down after grilling before serving.