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I was only a teenager when, at a fancy wedding, a shallow dish of this iconic dessert was placed before me. I was definitely suspicious. To my untrained eye, it appeared that my pudding had been burnt to a crisp on top, and I wasn't sure what to do next. I watched as fellow diners took up their spoons and sunk them into the dish, the surface of the contents giving way with a slight crack. I remember following suit and feeling the sugar shell give way with a crunch, to the most smooth and delicious vanilla pudding I'd ever tasted. It was one of those defining moments that cooks carry with them for life.
It was also the first dessert that was more complicated than cookies or boxed cake mix that I attempted on my own. I remember seeking out the recipe sometime in college and being surprised to learn that that "pudding" was actually a custard, and it was baked in an oven in a bath of hot water. Lacking ramekins, a torch, or a good grasp on using a timer for baking, my first crème brûlée were molded in coffee cups, set ablaze with a Bic lighter, and still delightful. It was one of the most satisfying cooking experiences of my life.
Crème Brûlée is a dessert that's super old school, and by most estimates it's been pleasing cooks in this manner for over 300 years. It's originally credited to the French, but desserts of a similar format pepper European history, like Crema Cremada (Catalan "burnt cream") being incredibly popular in its namesake region of Spain, and Trinity Cream, which was originally created by a student at Trinity College for the cooks there.
The custard of Crème Brûlée consists of cream, sugar, egg yolks, flavoring (from herbs, zest, or spices), and a little salt. It's unique in that it relies solely on the egg yolks to give it body, which means it's a looser baked custard than its cousins Crème Caramel and Pot a Crème, which are thickened with both egg yolks and whites. The cream is brought to a boil with the flavoring, then removed from heat and allowed to steep. Once fully mixed, the custard is divided into individual cups and baked in a water bath, which simultaneously helps to steam the custards and distribute heat evenly. Once the custard has been chilled, the surface is coated with a thin, even layer of sugar which is caramelized with a torch and forms a hard shell over the smooth custard beneath.
There are many different ways to flavor Crème Brûlée, but my favorite is still vanilla, using a whole vanilla bean. Click through the slideshow for tips and tricks for making it at home—then try it yourself, using this recipe for Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée.