SHF #18: Bailey's Irish Cream Crème Brûlée
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
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
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. Brûlée 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 brûlées.
Place 6, 180ml/6oz ramekins (or flatter brulee dishes) in a pan with at least an 3.8cm/1.5 inch lip. Strain the brûlée 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 brûlées 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.