This is a choose-your-own-ending dessert. Made with the same base using the same cooking method, crème brûlée and crème caramel are like funhouse-mirror images of one another. Both are rich, delicate, vanilla-scented custards, but the former is topped with a hard, crackly caramel lid, while the latter is coated in a liquid caramel sauce that forms during baking (the caramel actually starts on the bottom, but becomes the top when inverted, like a flan). Would you rather cook the sugar on the stove to a deep amber color at the beginning and pour into ramekins for crème caramel, or use a torch to caramelize it at the very end for crème brûlée? The answer comes down to preference and comfort (and, possibly, your desire to own a torch).




ACTIVE TIME: 45 minutes

TOTAL TIME: 5 hours 30 minutes (includes 4 hours for chilling)

SPECIAL EQUIPMENT: Eight 6-ounce ramekins, 8-cup glass measuring cup (optional), roasting pan or large shallow baking dish, kitchen torch (if making crème brûlée)

  • ¾ cup granulated sugar (5.3 oz / 150g)

    TOR-What's For Dessert Book cover What's for Dessert Claire Saffitz
  • 4 cups half-and-half (32 oz / 960g)

  • Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean (pod reserved) or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

  • Generous pinch of kosher salt

  • 6 large egg yolks (3.2 oz / 90g), at room temperature

  • 2 large eggs (3.5 oz / 100g), at room temperature

  • ½ cup demerara sugar (3.5 oz / 100g)

FOR CRÈME BRÛLÉE: Set the granulated sugar aside and skip below to preheat the oven.

FOR CRÈME CARAMEL, MAKE THE CARAMEL: Fill a glass with water, place a pastry brush inside, and set it next to the stove. In a small saucepan, combine ¼ cup (2 oz / 57g) water and the granulated sugar and stir gently with a heatproof flexible spatula over medium-high heat just until the sugar dissolves to form a clear syrup and the mixture comes to a boil, about 3 minutes. Cook the mixture to a deep amber caramel following steps 3 through 5 in Cooking a Wet Caramel (page 346), then immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and proceed to the next step.

DIVIDE THE CARAMEL AMONG THE RAMEKINS: Quickly pour the caramel into eight 6-ounce ramekins, dividing it evenly and using a heatproof flexible spatula to scrape all the caramel out of the saucepan. Before the caramel sets, tilt the ramekins to fill in any gaps (be careful, it’s hot!). It’s okay if it doesn’t cover the entire surface, as small gaps will disappear during baking (if the caramel hardens all in one spot, you can microwave the ramekins in 10-second bursts to liquefy it again). Set the ramekins aside to cool.

PREHEAT THE OVEN: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven to 300°F.

HEAT AND INFUSE THE HALF-AND-HALF: In a small saucepan, combine the half-and-half, vanilla seeds and pod, and salt and heat over medium heat, whisking occasionally to disperse the vanilla seeds, until the mixture is steaming and just starting to ripple beneath the surface, about 5 minutes (if using vanilla extract, set it aside to add later). Remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside (leave the vanilla pod in the saucepan to infuse the mixture).

BLANCH AND TEMPER THE EGGS: In a medium bowl, vigorously whisk the egg yolks, whole eggs, and demerara sugar until the mixture is frothy and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Whisking the egg mixture constantly, slowly pour in the hot half-and-half mixture to temper the eggs, then switch to a flexible spatula and stir, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl, to ensure the sugar is dissolved (for more information, see Blanching and Tempering Eggs, page 348). If using vanilla extract, whisk it in now.

STRAIN THE CUSTARD: Pass the custard through a fine-mesh sieve and into an 8-cup glass measuring cup, pitcher, or medium bowl (a pour spout makes it easier to fill the ramekins). Discard the vanilla pod and any solids that were caught in the sieve.

FILL AND COVER THE CUPS: Divide the custard evenly among eight 6-ounce ramekins (pouring it over the hardened caramel if making crème caramel). They will be filled nearly to the top. Cut eight squares of foil large enough to cover each ramekin, then cover each with foil, making sure that the foil doesn’t touch the surface of the custard (it does not need to be tightly sealed). Holding the foil taut, use a toothpick to poke a couple of small holes in each foil lid to allow steam to escape, then set the ramekins aside.

PREPARE THE WATER BATH: Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a kettle or in a medium saucepan over high heat. While the water is heating, select a roasting pan or shallow baking dish large enough to hold the eight ramekins, line it with a thin kitchen towel, and smooth any wrinkles (this is optional but recommended to prevent the ramekins from sliding around). Place the ramekins inside the roasting pan, spacing them evenly and ensuring that they’re level on the towel.

 “What’s For Dessert?” Copyright © 2022 by Claire Saffitz. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.”

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