My Love-Hate Relationship with Creme BruleeJuly 29, 2010
There are some desserts pastry chefs simultaneously love and hate. Crème Brûlée is one of them.
When we eat out a perfect crème brûlée is an ideal way to end a meal. The combination of creamy custard and brittle topping are quintessential dessert textures that help make a great dessert. It also hits the spot because after being around sugar all day we want straightforward and clean flavors.
Too often it is executed poorly and we go away disappointed. The custard is overcooked or eggy and the brûlée layer is too thick or so caramelized it is dark brown, almost black, in color and tastes burnt. Ideally the custard should be creamy and the burnt sugar crust a thin layer of golden caramel.
Which tool to use to make the caramelized top is key. Traditional branding irons, used by French chefs before gas and broilers, are hard to control. The circular metal piece is heated up in the flame and then placed on top of the custard. Just like a cattle branding iron. It is impossible to see the color of the caramel and know when it is just right. If you take it off too soon the whole caramel layer sticks to the iron. Too late and it is burnt. You have to be really good to work with these. Sometimes the custard is put under a broiler but the problem here is that broilers/salamanders don’t get hot enough to make a crunchy top or the custard gets too warm before the sugar caramelizes. The best implement to use is a construction blow torch. A bit daunting to new dessert platers but they quickly get the hang of it and love it for its accuracy. (Home versions of the torch with a smaller flame are less intimidating but they have to be filled with butane which is much more of a pain than learning how to use a big torch.)
As sellers of crème brûlées we love them because when it is on the menu we sell a lot of them regardless of the custard flavor. If we make them correctly our guests leave happy. On the flip side, we grumble because when brûlées are on the menu it seems as though that is all we sell. All the other desserts we love and have labored over get trumped by crème brûlée every time. From a production stand point they are tedious to make. When you bake a hotel pan full of about 18 ramekins they will be finished at varying times. You have to be patient to take them out just when they are done. Its many trips back and forth to the oven. It is a real labor of love.
I know some pastry chefs who refuse to put brûlées on their dessert menus because they are burnt out making them and they are discouraged that is all they sell. I think that’s a bit extreme. We are in the people pleasing business. I run crème brûlées often but will take them off when we have another custard-type dessert on the menu.
Pastry chefs agree a really made crème brûlée is a work of art. We just don’t want them to take over our lives.