There seems to be a distinct difference between American and European recipes for Crème Brûlée: American recipes seem to consistently call for the custard to be baked in order to set it completely, while European recipes don't.
Baking the brûlée makes it set quite firmly, allowing you to tip it out of the ramekin afterwards. This makes it easier to present it prettily, should you so wish: for example, surrounded by a fruit coulis, topped with a few leaves of fresh mint, and dusted with powdered sugar. An unbaked brûlée is generally served in the ramekin, and can be spooned out like whipped cream. Personally, I prefer the unbaked variety, because of its smoother, velvety mouthfeel.
Here's my simple recipe for an unbaked crème brûlée (serves 2):
- 250ml double cream
- 3 egg yolks
- 60g caster sugar
- half a vanilla pod, or 3 tsp vanilla essence (not vanilla flavouring)
Put the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl and cream them together until they form a smooth fondant-like paste. Put this aside until a little later.
Slice the half of your vanilla pod lengthwise. (Most vanilla pods are quite long come in jars or packets, and are folded in half. If you're scaling this recipe up, it's easier to cut the whole pod in half along this fold before slicing it open.) Using the tip of your knife, scrape out the tiny black vanilla seeds from the pod. Put the seeds, the pod, and the cream in a small saucepan. Heat this mix slowly, while stirring continuously. Initially, the vanilla seeds all clump together in small blobs--stirring helps break them up and distribute them evenly throughout the cream. Be sure to hold your head over the pan and sniff in deeply, as the aroma is marvellous!
Before the cream comes to a boil, take it off the heat, and let it cool for a minute or so. Then, take a whisk or a fork, and pour half of the vanilla cream mixture into the bowl with the egg/sugar paste, whisking it gently. Keep whisking until this mix is smooth, then pour it back into the saucepan with the rest of the cream.
Now, put the saucepan back on a low heat, and keep whisking and stirring until it is just below the boil again. By this point it will be thickening gently, too, giving you a thick, velvety custard. Take the pan off the heat, and continue whisking for about three or four minutes. This additional whisking will turn the custard ultra-smooth, and remove any graininess or lumps it may have acquired while being heated.
Pour the custard into ramekins, and put them in your fridge to cool (about two hours). As they chill, they will set, but they won't go completely solid. If you cover them, you can keep them in the fridge for up to 24 hours--useful if you're preparing them in advance for a dinner party!
Just before you want to serve the brûlées, take them out of the fridge, and sprinkle some caster sugar over them. Turn the ramekins in your hand, tapping the sides, so that the sugar distributes itself evenly over the top of the custard.
Now, if you have a kitchen blowtorch use it to caramelise the sugar. (A kitchen blowtorch is an excellent and surprisingly versatile tool: you can use it for blackening peppers, browning and crisping meat, melting parmesan cheese over the top of pasta dishes, and much, much more. As Gounthar notes below, an ordinary blowtorch, filled with propane, would give the brûlées a bizarre taste. A proper kitchen blowtorch should be filled with butane, though, which leaves virtually no taste signature.)
If you don't have a blowtorch, you can put the ramekins under a very hot grill ("broiler" for you wacky American types), and let the heat from above melt and caramelise the sugar. If you're doing it this way, though, don't take your eyes off the brûlées for a second. The caramel can goes from a sweet brown to carbonised black in an instant.
Finally, allow the caramel to cool for a minute, and then serve. Tap the caramel shell and unleash the silky loveliness within!