Creme Brulee has the reputation of being a very difficult dessert to make, but the most difficult part is planning and patience. If you can wait out the time it takes for your custard to set up, you can get make an impressive dish with consistent results.
My sage advice is to plan to make this recipe a day before you need it, and make sure you have something to do while you hang around the house waiting for it to finish. As long as you have the right equipment and don’t rush this recipe, you’ll find that it’s a no-fail creme brulee.
The right equipment is essential, so make sure you have the right items before you start. I recommend using two personal souffle ramekins (mine are approximately 4-5 inches in diameter and about an inch to 1 1/2 inches deep) and one glass or ceramic (I use Correlle or Pyrex) baking dish large enough to hold them both; it is essential that the creme brulee is baked in a water bath.
1 cup cream or 1 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
brown sugar or turbinado or other natural sugar, for the brulee garnish
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Warm the cream in a small saucepan on low fire. Don’t bring to a boil, just heat the cream.
Meanwhile beat the eggs well in a medium-sized bowl. Add the sugar and beat it thoroughly into the eggs. When cream is heated, add it gradually to the eggs while beating. Add vanilla while beating.
Prepare the water bath by placing both ramekins in the chosen baking dish. Fill the dish with warm water so it reaches two thirds up the sides of the ramekins, then fill the ramekins with the liquid custard.
Bake for 30 minutes at 300 degrees. Reduce oven temperature to 275 degrees, and bake for another 30 minutes, and then check on the custard. Custard is set only if it seems solid (a pudding-like jiggle is okay) when you gently jostle the ramekin. If it has a liquid-like slosh, set the timer for another 30 minutes keep baking at 275. Check every 30 minutes and keep baking until custard solidifies. After it sets, chill the custard for at least two hours.
Add the garnish by covering the tops of the chilled custards with sugar (it should stick to the top of the custard so you can just pour out the excess). If you have a creme brulee torch, that is the easiest way to caramelize the sugar. But if you don’t, you can use your oven’s broiler. After preheating the broiler, put the ramekins under the broiler coil for about a minute or two, leaving the oven or broiler door open.
The baking portion of this recipe is where the patience comes in. Depending on individual ovens (older ovens tend to lose temperature power and accuracy with time), you may need more or less time. That’s why I recommend checking every 30 minutes and resetting the time. The last time I made creme brulee it took a good two hours, maybe a little more. If you’re not patient will the custard it will be too liquid. Plan a project for the day where you’re in earshot of the kitchen timer.
It will also take more or less time depending on the type of creme you use. I generally prefer to use heavy cream, as that creates the thickest, richest custard. Though, sometimes for the sake of cost and/or convenience (i.e. I need half-n-half for something else I’m making), I will use half-n-half. Naturally, the lighter the cream, the fewer milk solids it has, and the more liquid content it has. Using half-n-half will create a softer, more delicate custard, but it will also take more time.