Serious Eats: Recipes

Cook the Book: Crème Brûlée

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

In all of my years working in restaurants, no dessert has proved to be as universally popular as crème brûlée. It seems as though if you put crème brûlée on a dessert menu one out of every two people will invariably order it, myself included. But why? It's really nothing more than a vanilla-scented custard finished with a layer of caramelized sugar—essentially a pudding. Pudding isn't something that people generally get too worked up over.

I've come up with two theories on why crème brûlée is such a crowd pleaser. First, I think that there is something intensely satisfying about that initial cracking of the sugary crust—it's exciting to hear the sound and watch the sugar break into golden shards. My second theory is that crème brûlée is something that hardly anyone makes at home, and that it what really makes it a special occasion dessert.

When looking at recipes for making crème brûlée at home a few off-putting words come up, namely bain-marie (a simple water bath) and torch. No matter if the torch is propane or butane powered, it's still a scary sounding proposition. For most home cooks the combination of these two techniques is just too much.

Luckily, Stephanie O'Dea has come up with a way of making crème brûlée with only one piece of special equipment (a slow cooker) and barely any hands-on cooking time. With this insanely easy version of crème brûlée from Make it Fast, Cook it Slow all you really have to do is mix egg yolks, cream, vanilla, and sugar, pour it into a heat-resistant dish, cover it, and cook it in the slow cooker for a few hours. There's no need to worry about keeping a consistent temperature (that's what the slow cooker was made for) and when your custards have set and chilled, just sprinkle on a few tablespoons of raw sugar and stick them under the broiler until the sugar caramelizes.

I tried out this recipe at home and it was kind of amazing. The little custards cooked perfectly evenly in the slow cooker and the texture and flavors were spot on, and the sugar sprinkled on top caramelized in just a few minutes under the heat of the broiler, no torch needed. Crème brûlée coming out of my kitchen, made with a slow cooker no less—it's really kind of incredible.

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