One of my more specialised Christmas presents this year was a cook’s blowtorch. We have been trying in vain to come up with uses for it other than caramelising the sugar on top of a crème brûlée, tentatively suggesting things like charring the outside of aubergines, but it really only has one purpose. I love this particular dessert so much, though, that having a piece of rather expensive kitchen gadgetry designed solely to make it seems fine to me.
Crème Brûlée originated in England, in Cambridge, under the appellation ‘Burnt Cream’. The dessert was then adopted, and probably perfected, by the French, and given a much more elegant name. On a recent trip to Paris I opted to try many incarnations of the dessert, ranging from passable to sublime. The exact combination of a thin layer of crisp caramel hiding a luscious, wobbly underneath is surprisingly hard to come by. Often they are fiddled about with, and things like ginger, blueberries or cardamom are added. For me, the most successful crème brûlée will always be one flavoured purely with vanilla.
The blowtorch took a bit of getting used to: the rushing of gas and the sudden ignition are slightly alarming – my first couple of attempts definitely deserved the description ‘burnt cream’. After a few practices and some YouTube tutorials, I was able to get something resembling gently caramelised. A few black patches are fine though- the slight bitterness greatly complements the creamy, sweet custard.
Recipe adapted from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course
1 pint (570ml) double cream
6 egg yolks
4 level tsps cornflour
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 vanilla pod (or 1 tsp vanilla paste with seeds)
Topping: 6 tsps light brown sugar
You will need 6 ramekins, and a blowtorch!
Put the cream in a pan. If you are using a vanilla pod, split it lengthways and scrape out the seeds, then add the seeds and the pod to the cream. If using the paste, just stir it in. Heat over a medium heat until the cream starts to simmer. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks, cornflour and caster sugar in a bowl large enough to accommodate the cream as well. Then pour the hot cream into the egg mixture little by little, whisking all the time. Then pour the mixture back into the pan and return to a low heat. Whisk all the time until the custard thickens, which should only take a minute or two. Divide the custard between the ramekins and leave to cool, then cover each ramekin with cling film and put in the fridge to set (this should take around 4 hours).
When the custard has set, sprinkle a teaspoonful of light brown sugar over each one, shaking the ramekin to spread it evenly. Fire up the blowtorch and move it in circles over the sugar, moving it further away if it looks like it’s going black too quickly, until all the sugar has caramelised into a burnished golden colour. Leave for a few seconds to allow the caramel to harden, then serve.