How to Ruin Crème Brûlée: A Lament

by A.A.

It all started with such good intentions. Make a fun dessert, add an improvised garnish, and serve with a sparkling wine you’ve never tried before. In this case: crème brûlée, candied ginger, and a cheap sparkling Vouvray. This was all by way of noting the occurrence of Valentine’s Day yesterday, if not actually celebrating it, because only bad people do that. By the end of it all, the project was such a comprehensive failure that it began to mirror what Valentine’s Day actually is for most people, most of the time: a rotten breeding ground for cynicism and self-doubt, a metaphorical trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower with someone you realize you no longer love. It was a Fail of the highest order, and in order to prevent you, the reader, from ever having to experience it, I’m letting you in on what exactly went wrong.

The Crème Brûlée

You need: 6 egg yolks / 6 T. sugar plus extra for the brûlée / 1.5 c. heavy whipping cream / 1 t. vanilla / butter

  1. Pre-heat oven. Step one in failing is setting the oven too low. The recipe I used said 275, which seemed awfully low, but since my oven is a known traitor, I kept it low. If your oven is more reliable, you can probably go up to 325° without a problem.

  2. The recipe I used also said to butter your ramekins, which I also did, but which does not make any sense. You’re eating the stuff right out of the ramekin…why grease it up? Place the ramekins in a glass roasting pan.

  3. In a stand mixer or with a handheld electric mixer, combine the 6 egg yolks with the 6 T. of sugar until the sugar’s pretty well integrated. Gradually add in the whipping cream and keep the beater speed on low to medium – don’t overwhip this. Don’t forget to add the lonely teaspoon of vanilla. In retrospect, 1.5 c. of whipping cream wasn’t enough: go up to 2 cups, or your custard will end up tasting awfully eggy, as mine did. Don’t be like me.

  4. In the meantime, start boiling a kettle of water on the stove.

  5. Carefully pour the custard into the ramekins. Then, with the UTMOST of CARE, slowly pour the hot water into the roasting pan, until it’s as high as the custard in the ramekins is. Does that even vaguely make sense? The point is that custard, again, is delicate, and needs a gentle hot water bath as it bakes, else it get an attitude and totally fail on you.

  6. Slide the roasting pan into the oven on the middle rack. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the custard’s top is set, but the middle jiggles when you nudge the pan. It’s okay, it chills and gets a more enticing texture. This is another crucial fail-point: my recipe said 30-40 minutes, but really you need more like 40-45 minutes at 325.

  7. Remove from the oven (carefully! Yes, even now!) and let the roasting pan rest until the water reaches room temperature.

  8. Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and chill overnight. IMPORTANT! Explain to your roommate that only the ramekins needed to be wrapped and chilled, otherwise she, a non-baker, may take it to mean that she should wrap the entire roasting pan, water and all, in foil and place in the fridge overnight, allowing the remaining condensation to pool up and drip onto the ramekins, hurting their delicate skin.

  9. Torchin’: spread an even layer of sugar on each ramekin, and carefully brûlée until the sugar is brown and bubbling. It continues to burn for a few seconds after you stop the flame, so take care not to end up with Cajun-blackened crème brûlée. The coarser the sugar you use, the better, as I learned the hard way. Finer sugar clumps together and leads to your final product resembling some kind of topographic map of Hell.

Now, these points don’t even include all of my missteps, which included re-baking the custards after they’d been chilled overnight and were still visibly jiggly and under-set, followed by not allowing them to cool properly before burning their tops.

The Candied Ginger — The candied ginger went much better. This is a good garnish to consider for drinks and other desserts, and it’s pretty easy to make.

  1. Buy a bunch of raw ginger at your local hippie-oriented food store.

  2. Ask your helper monkey roommate to peel and slice the ginger into fairly thin pieces, because lord knows that is a thankless task that you’re not up to.

  3. Put ginger in a heavy saucepan, cover with water, and simmer for 30 minutes.

  4. [Natural remedy BONUS: Ginger tea (i.e., the water that you’re boiling those ginger slices in) is great for soothing stomach-aches, and cheaper than Pepto).]

  5. Drain water. If you have a kitchen scale, weigh the amount of ginger you have, because you’ll need roughly the same amount of sugar. Or eyeball it.

  6. Combine ginger, sugar, and 3 T. of water in a small saucepan, turn heat up to SCORCHIN’, and stir continuously until almost all of the water evaporates. Then, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue stirring until the mixture is pretty much dry.

  7. Remove from stove and let cool slightly. Toss the ginger with some extra sugar to prevent clumping. Store in an air-tight container.

The Cheap Wine Pairing

Conventional wisdom is that dessert wines should be paired, if at all, with a dessert that is less sweet than the wine. This is more difficult than it sounds – I think the unspoken rule is that fruit-based desserts generally fit the bill. In this case, because the crème brulee is both sweet and incredibly rich, I decided to pair it with a bottle of sparkling Vouvray that’s available at Trader Joe’s for about $11. My love for Vouvray, which can range from bone-dry to off-dry to full-on dessert wine, is well-documented, but it’s hard to find inexpensive versions. So I entered into this tasting knowing full well that the Trader Joe’s entry could potentially be a major bust. And, incidentally, it was a total bust. Sure, it was dry and bubbly, but in terms of flavor profile there was absolutely nothing recalling any fruit I’ve ever tasted. Maybe rotten apples mixed with eau de kitchen sponge? Lesson learned: When something seems too good to be true, like, say, a decent-quality $11 Vouvray, it probably is.


7 responses to “How to Ruin Crème Brûlée: A Lament

  1. Oh god I feel your pain. There are certain desserts (creme brulee being one of them) that cause me to throw my hands up and vow to leave it to good restaurants. I’ll stick to fruit crisps and if I’m feeling fancy, panna cotta at home, thank you very much.

  2. mikey’s theory of Woo.

    Make dinner.

    Buy desert.

    Overspend on wine.

    No charge…


  3. Your blog has been a great inspiration– during dinner tonight I finally picked up a camera and talked about dinner today. Plus I linked off to a very tasty recipe. Tonight’s Dinner Post, and some talk about Joining a CSA and raving about a cookbook. I’m pretty sure it was EK’s recommendation that sold me on that cookbook– and it has been great!

  4. I didn’t think they were that bad, but then again I was pretty drunk.

  5. I’m glad I loathe custards of all sorts, including creme brulee. They sound like a bitch to make.

  6. I identify with #5. I think I’ve done water baths twice, maybe three times. At least once I’ve splashed water on/into the food. I’m afraid I’d have too much fun with the torch if I made crème brûlée.

    As RV suggested, give your guests enough alcohol and they won’t notice a thing.

    Don’t knock cheap wines. Just because that cheap Vouvray was bad doesn’t mean all are. Not that I know from Vouvray. Reviews on the internet are your friend in this department.

  7. “Topographical map of hell.” Very funny, I’ll have to check out some of your other exploits.

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