Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée

One of my (and my husband's) favorite things is the sound of a crème brûlée shell cracking as I tap my spoon on it. It is best if it takes a few taps to actually break through it and has a good crunch when you bite into it. Because of this, we've shared many different types of crème brûlée: many classic vanillas, a butterscotch version with pear compote at Riva Grill, a tart lemon version, and even a dark chocolate raspberry crème brûlée tart at Evan's in Lake Tahoe (good even though it lacked the shell we love). There are several flavors we've experienced that are escaping me at the moment, but we always go back to vanilla. Maybe topped with a few fresh berries, a small dollop of whipped cream, and a sprig of fresh mint. But to us, garnishes can get in the way of a whole lot of wonderful.

Considering how much we enjoy this dessert, it is amazing that this is only the second time I have attempted to make it. Recipes that require adding hot liquids to eggs make me nervous because a failed attempt at ice cream has made me a bit gun-shy of this technique. The first time I made crème brûlée, I spent a good part of a day making it, only to realize that the ramekins I cooked it in were too deep and the custard did not cook all the way through (which is quite gross, actually). I decided to put the dessert aside, saving its enjoyment for when we were out for a nice dinner.

Recently, my husband purchased a crème brûlée grilling set that was on sale at Sur La Table. The set comes with two ramekins and a grill press that fits perfectly into the ramekins. After making the crème brûlée, you heat the grill press on the grill until it is really hot and use it to burn the sugar. We have a torch, but this seemed novel, so when my younger brother was visiting from Minneapolis, we decided to give it a try. I used the recipe that came with the set, and I must say, it was the easiest recipe I have ever come across. The custard is smooth and silky, with a beautiful vanilla flavor hinted with citrus and cinnamon. The recipe could easily be modified to create different flavors, like dark chocolate, Meyer lemon, and butterscotch.


Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée
Makes 2 servings

1 1/2 c heavy whipping cream
One 2-inch cinnamon stick
1/2 vanilla bean, split (or 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract*)
1 strip lemon peel (use a vegetable peeler or zesting tool)
3 egg yolks
1/3 c granulated cane sugar
2 tsp honey
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
4 tbsp turbinado (raw) sugar

Combine the cream, cinnamon, vanilla bean (or extract), and lemon peel in a heavy saucepan and simmer over very low heat for 10 minutes. DO NOT allow it to boil. In another heavy saucepan, whisk together the granulated sugar and cornstarch. Add the egg yolks and honey and whisk until smooth and creamy.

Strain the flavored cream to remove the solids and let sit for a minute or two to cool down slightly. (I transferred the mixture to a small pitcher to speed the cooling process and help with the next step.) While whisking the egg mixture, slowly pour in about 1/4 c of the cream. Continue whisking, adding the cream in small amounts, until all the cream has been incorporated. Caution: if you add the hot cream to the egg mixture too quickly, the eggs will curdle.

Cook the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking steadily, until the crème thickens, about 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from heat just before it begins to boil, then continue whisking for another two minutes.

Divide the crème evenly between two shallow ramekins. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate, covered, for at least three hours or as long as overnight.

To serve, evenly sprinkle 2 tablespoons of turbinado sugar over the top of each ramekin. Using a kitchen torch or the broiling method, caramelize the sugar until golden brown. Serve immediately. And take a moment to enjoy the cracking of the shell :)

*If you use vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, make sure you use pure extract, not artificial. Artificial will give a very alcohol-like bitterness and will just not taste as good as the pure extract or vanilla bean.