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A love affair with crème brulée

by Joshua Dineen, chef specialist, Lincoln Land Community College

When I see crème brulée on a menu, I can’t help myself, I must order it. It is usually good, but every couple of years, it is amazing!

Maybe it is a bit of nostalgia that I love this dessert so much. Over two decades ago, my wife said yes to my marriage proposal while we were having dinner at Maldaner’s. I remember her saying we had to get crème brulée as one of the desserts. I hadn’t had it before, as I was just beginning my culinary adventure and had so much amazing food yet to experience. When the dessert came, she showed me how to use the back of a spoon to crack the top, what a satisfying sound! That sound is good for my soul, like the sound of freshly baked crusty bread. Each spoonful has a creamy and delicate bit of custard, and then you get some crunch and slight bitterness with the richness of the burnt caramel pieces.

My next memory is making it in pastry class, learning the method and science from a pastry chef who had been making the dessert for decades. When you successfully make something seemingly so simple, with just a few ingredients, and the outcome is so wonderful, it lends a lot of pride and accomplishment.

Looking back into history, custards have been around since ancient Rome, using eggs to thicken milk or cream. In the Middle Ages in England, custards gained in popularity and eventually at Trinity College in Cambridge, the first version of, “Burnt Cream” as we know it was created. A branding iron was used to caramelize the sugar. I have had it made with a branding iron, and it is my favorite way. France eventually adopted the recipe giving it the name we all now know it by, crème brulée.

I have learned what not to do when making crème brulée through simple mistakes. Many times, I cooked them without a water bath and got great results, sometimes not so great results. Even with a water bath, I would tinker with the recipe and change the cooking time and/or temperature. Sometimes it would have great results and other times a comical failure. Impatience taught me the importance of completely chilling the custard before adding and burning the sugar. How much sugar on top is important. Too much sugar may taste fun, but it gives a rock candy hardness that loses the delicacy of the dessert.

It’s a very flexible dish when considering flavors, at its core it is a custard with caramel on top. This is a vehicle for fun and playing with your food. I’ve made every degree of chocolate and fruits when experimenting with flavors. One of my favorite flavors is Earl Grey tea.

Now my wife and I order it every time it’s on a menu. We discuss the results and how the techniques could be improved or the quality of ingredients. Occasionally, we come across a perfect one, then we order another and savor every bite. These perfect versions offer simple joy and excitement in their flavor and texture. Often the conversation moves to memories tied to the many good and great romantic dinners we have had and continue to add to. We love to travel, and maybe a secret motivation is to continue to share the next crème brulée wherever in the world that may be.

Crème brulée

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 4 ounces sugar, plus a little extra to sprinkle on top to burn
  • 20 ounces heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla, the best you can find
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Combine egg yolks and sugar. Whisk until thoroughly combined.
  3. Bring heavy cream to a boil.
  4. Pour half of hot cream into egg mixture, whisk to combine. Add the rest of the of the cream and whisk.
  5. Return mixture to pot and stir constantly over medium/low heat, until the custard thickens to a thin sauce consistency.
  6. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve and stir in vanilla.
  7. Pour into ramekins or appropriate container. How full is up to you. I prefer less full as it gives a higher ratio of caramel to cream in the finished product.
  8. Place in a water bath and bake at 325 degrees for about 45 minutes or until just barely set.
  9. Remove from the oven and let set at room temperature for 10 minutes,
  10. Place in the fridge overnight.
  11. When ready to eat, sprinkle a bit of sugar on top and using the broil setting on your oven or a blowtorch, burn the caramel to your desired intensity.
  12. Let set for one minute to let the caramel harden just a bit. Take a spoon and use the back to crack. Get a bit of custard and caramel in each bite and enjoy!


Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through LLCC Community Education.

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