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April 21, 2006

SHF #18: Bailey's Irish Cream Crème Brûlée

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I need a drink.  Badly.

There are few dishes in this world that cause me more anxiety -- of the finger-chewing, hall-pacing variety -- than making crème brûlée.  I do it, nonetheless, because the reward when I succeed is a dish so delicious I become prone to crème brûlée-induced erratic behaviour.  Take the Bailey's Irish Cream crème brûlée I've made for the liquor-themed edition of Sugar High Friday, hosted by Lick The Spoon: dark, smooth, creamy, flecked with vanilla seeds, and capped with a crackling burnt sugar crust, the already decadent custard is enriched with the unmistakable whiskey and aromatic notes of Bailey's.

But when I fail, I fail spectacularly.  For this I blame the egg, the petulant diva of gastronomy.  Treat her well, and the egg rewards you with flavour, texture, and body.  Make the slightest misstep, however, and our spoiled little prodigy is not afraid to throw her steaming hot, non-fat, organic soy milk latte on you, give you the "Do you know who I am?" treatment, and ruin your dish in a hissyfit of coagulation and curdling.  Never is this flightiness more apparent than in the creation of custards.

The problem, as Harold McGee explains it, is that the difference between a set custard and the beginning of scrambled eggs is minute: "the coagulation temperature in a custard is... between 175 and 185F/79-83C....  Exceed the coagulation range by just 5 or 10F [approximately 2.8-5.6C] and the network begins to collapse, forming water-filled tunnels in the custard, grainy curds in the cream."

Given such a small margin of error, you have to wonder why most crème brûlée recipes are so imprecise about indicating when the custard is done.  Even Alton Brown, the pop culture icon of kitchen science, can offer a recipe no more precise than "Bake just until the creme brulee is set, but still trembling in the center, approximately 40 to 45 minutes." Grrrr.  If you're going to offer instructions that vague, why offer them at all?

That's why I'm on a personal crusade to remove as much of the guesswork from making crème brûlée as possible.  My goal is to add a little science into the art of making crème brûlée, so that no person will ever stare upon six ramekins of vanilla scrambled eggs and wonder where it all went wrong.  It's not pretty, trust me, I've done it.

As I see it, there is really only one tool needed to emancipate our culinary diva, a digital thermometer, and one secret to understand: treat crème brûlée like a meat roast -- if you want to know its degree of doneness, take its temperature.  I prefer my crème brûlée custard to have a creamy, pudding-like consistency.  This requires cooking the custard to a minimum of 71C/160F, the temperature at which the eggs start to thicken, but not much higher.  When I took the temperature of a crème brûlée immediately after removing it from the oven, my digital thermometer read 72C/161F. If you prefer your custard firmer, than cook the dish to a higher temperature.  Under no circumstances, however, cook the custard above 82C/180F, unless you're in the mood for Bailey's scrambled eggs.

Of course, it also doesn't hurt to be more precise about every other part of the process -- from ingredient amounts to the scalding of the cream -- so I've done that too.

Classic Crème Brûlée
Yield: 6

Crème Brûlée

750 ml whipping cream, or 500 ml whipping cream and 250 ml Bailey's (3 cups whipping cream, or 2 cups whipping cream and 1 cup Bailey's)
2 vanilla beans (use only one if substituting the Bailey's for the cream)
140 g egg yolks (approximately 8 egg yolks)
110 g vanilla or regular sugar (approximately 1/2 cup)
dash of salt

Directions:

Crème Brûlée
Heat cream (and Bailey's) with the scraped seeds from the vanilla beans and the pods until the mixture reaches 88C/190F, just below a simmer. Don't let this mixture boil.

In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or with an electric mixer or a whisk), whip egg yolks, vanilla sugar and salt until pale and thick. Remove the pods from the cream mixture and, with mixer on low speed, very slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides occasionally.

Strain and chill completely (with the pods added back to the mixture), and let rest for at least 3 hours, overnight is best. B
rûlée mix can be made up to 2 days in advance.

Preheat oven to 135C/275 F.  Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and another in the top.  Place a cookie sheet on the top rack directly below the upper broiler.  This is to prevent any direct heat from the upper broiler overcooking the tops of the b
rûlées.

Place 6, 180ml/6oz ramekins (or flatter brulee dishes) in a pan with at least an 3.8cm/1.5 inch lip.  Strain the b
rûlée mix (Do not throw away the pod!  Dry it and make vanilla sugar) into the ramekins cups, this should minimize the amount of bubbles that form on top of the custard. Carefully pour hot tap water around cups to come at least halfway up the ramekins.  Note: Be very careful moving the brulees to the oven, as getting water in them is not such a great idea.  One possible solution is to open the oven door, slide out the middle rack and place the brûlée pan on it, then add the water to the pan.

Bake b
rûlées until the custard reaches an internal temperature of 72C/161C, or until the edges no longer jiggle when tapped, but the centre still jiggles slightly, approximately 60-75 minutes. Remove from water bath, let come to room temperature, and then chill for at least 3 hours before serving.

To serve, heat broiler. Sprinkle tops of custards with regular or vanilla sugar and broil for 1 minute, or use a butane kitchen torch.

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Comments

Ivonne

Well done! I have decided that I too need a drink so I was wondering if you could drop one of those creme brulees off at my office. I'm here until 4:00 ... yes???

Seriously though, wonderful post. And I couldn't agree with you more about the egg/custard/readiness issue. Unless you've watched a pro make the custard for creme brulee first hand, and then bake it, it's hard to know when it's ready. Bake until set and wobbly in the middle isn't exactly what I would call the most detailed of instructions.

May I ask what digital thermometre you use? I'm in the market for one and love hearing feedback from those who own one.

My compliments to you! The Bailey's is a nice touch as well. I just love Sugar High Fridays!

Tea

Wow, I didn't think that creme brulee could be improved upon--but Bailey's? Now that is a great way to end the week.

Anita

Wow, you really have the heart of a pastry chef - everything measured out and defined precisely! I have to admit that's what drew me to pastry over savory - the idea that you can quantify perfection. And I see from the delightful photo that your sugar caramelized perfectly as well!

Nerissa

That looks so amazingly good. I love to get crème brûlée when I am in France because it is so scrumptious. I'm a little scared to even think of trying. But perhaps it's better for one's figure if it is a very rare treat. ;-)

sam

Nice post Rob! I've have not had problems making crème brûlée. I do, however, understand that recipes can often be vague, and I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis and your attention to detail with your directions.

Here is a crème brûlée tip:
If you notice any bubbles on your crème brûlée after you have strained your custard and poured it into your ramekins, take a butane kitchen torch and quickly pass it over your brûlée. This should eliminate those pesky bubbles and give you a nice smooth finish.

Cheers!

Bron

Oh divine! 2 of my most favourite things together, Bailey's Irish Cream and Crème Brûlée!
Heavenly!!

Unfortunately I missed the deadline for this event, however I will post my sweet liquor invention at some stage.

Darcy

Bailey's is good, but if you get a chance try Dooley's Toffee liqueur. It hasa really pronounced flavour. Thanks for the great recipe though!

rob

Ivonne, I tend to use my Polder digital meat thermometer for everything now. It's got an alarm and a nice big display, plus I'm very used to using it. Given the need for precision measurement lately, what with all the MG preparations, I have been toying with the idea of splurging on a high-end thermometer (shhh... don't tell Rachel). Drop me an email if you want to discuss it in more detail.

Tea, Bailey's is a nice way to mellow, isn't it?

Anita, coming from you I'm very grateful for the compliment. Let's face it, the pastry chef's art involves walking a very, very fine line between success and failure, and good equipment and attention to detail are the best ways to avoid the latter.

Nerissa, creme brulee is most definitely not for those watching their weight: anything made almost entirely of egg yolks and cream is a little... heavy.

sam, thanks for the tip. The reason I strain the brulee mix into the ramekins is to avoid bubbles, but it's not a perfect system. Thanks for showing me a better way.

Bron, I can't wait to see what you come up with. I know it'll be good.

Darcy, I'll be sure to keep an eye out for Dooley's next time I visit the liquor store. Thanks for the advice.

gerhard

One way of eliminating the small window of error when baking a brulee is of course to use a circulating water bath, used for sous vide cooking. Cover the remakins completely with clingfilm (most water baths have covers and condensation will be a problem), place an inverted pot in the bath such that the ramekins are not immersed, set the temp to 72C and leave in peace. The great thing is that the custard cannot overcook.

 zuke

great advice. Thanks for explaining the temperature differences, that really helped me

Digital Meat Thermometer

i tried to make a Crème Brûlée once.. and I successfully bake it well without overcooking the custard..

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