I have a love-hate relationship with custard.
As a high school student enamored of kitchen art, I took every home ec. class I could cram into my schedule. I was a whiz at recipes, and I always did exceedingly well in the classes.
That is, until we got to custard.
I failed custard, miserably and repeatedly. I would follow the recipes to the letter, but invariably I’d be left with weeping, split, inedible messes. What’s more is that I didn’t give up after my first couple of disasters. No; I was damned and determined that I wasn’t going to let this process get the better of me, so I marched doggedly back into the high school kitchen lab to try again.
And again. And again.
Eventually, my teacher put her hand on my shoulder and told me that I should let this fight rest and move on to other skills (I think she was starting to fret the number of eggs disappearing from the lab’s fridge).
I never really gave up on custard, but it was a very long time before I was willing to confront the process again. I don’t know whether there was something in my teenage energy that was disrupting the natural order of custard or what, but I found that, now that I’m older, custard doesn’t present the same problems for me that it used to (and don’t discount the energetic theory, either; I used to stop watches, too).
So, here’s my go-to recipe, boosted with love and gratitude from Alton Brown. Start by putting 4 cups of heavy cream, into which you should drop a split and scraped vanilla bean (and, if you have it, a little dash of Trader Joe’s vanilla bean paste), into a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Set that to gently reach a boil over medium heat, then fish out the vanilla pods and set the pan aside to cool for about 15 minutes and put the kettle on.
While the cream is cooling and the kettle is heating, preheat your oven to 325° and get out the Kitchen Aid fitted with the whisk attachment. Into the bowl goes a half a cup of sugar (I don’t level the measure) and six egg yolks, which get whisked together until the mixture starts to take on a light, lemony color.
While the mixer is running, pour the cooled cream in to the egg and sugar, whisking until it’s all nicely combined. Pour the resulting liquid into 6 ramekins which you’ve put into a baking pan, pour the kettle into the pan so hot water comes to about halfway up the dessert cups, and park the baking pan in the middle of your oven for about 40 minutes. The custards should be set, but still jiggly in the middle. Remove the cups to the fridge to cool for at least two hours, but they can sit for a couple of days (cover them in plastic if they’re going to wait a while before serving).
The “brulee” part of creme brulee is just singed sugar. If you’ve thought ahead and popped a vanilla bean in some sugar, use that; if not, plain sugar will work just fine. Take the cups out of the fridge and let them sit at room temperature for a half hour or so before you sprinkle the tops with sugar. Then, using a torch if you have one or the broiler if you don’t, heat the sugar until it just starts to caramelize (if you’re doing this under the broiler, DON’T LOOK AWAY! Sugar goes from nicely browned to irretrievably burnt in the blink of an eye). Give the cups a few minutes to cool again, then serve them to everyone’s delight. The juxtaposition of the velvety custard and the crunchy sugar is sublime.
I’ve popped brulee’d cups back in the fridge and enjoyed them days later, but there’s a good chance you won’t have occasion to do that; these are too delicious to leave leftovers.