Hey hey, happy day, fire play, and crème brûlée!

Every month  the web team gets together to plan out our emails and blogs. A few months back, we were planning for July. “What should we feature on July 21?” asked Tracy, the magician behind the scenes who makes many things miraculously happen on our Web site.

“That’s my birthday, I’ll have the day off,” chimes in PJ.  (Yes, here at KAF, we get the day off on our birthday – one of everyone’s favorite company benefits.)

There’s a long silence… we all know what this means.  Who is going to bake the birthday cake?  Among the thousands of other things she does here – baking, blogging, copy writing – PJ always makes the birthday cake…

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and, she decorates the Web room for our birthday celebrations…

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and, she  makes us wear the silly birthday hat…

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and, she makes the card.

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Time for the team to give back. But what to bake? We wanted to include her absolute favorite ingredient, Vanilla Bean Crush – a super-intense vanilla extract, filled with tiny flecks of vanilla beans.

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Vanilla cake?  Ugh, we always do cake on birthdays… isn’t there something more exciting? Vanilla ice cream? We just blogged ice cream…  Vanilla cookies? That’s probably more appropriate for the holidays…

Crème brûlée!

Who doesn’t love crème brûlée … exquisitely smooth, with the delicious crisp burnt sugar crust, and a perfect way to showcase the flavor of vanilla. Plus, I had just a few months ago taken a class on making crème brûlée at our Baking Education Center.  (Another great benefit of working here – you can attend any non-professional class at the BEC that is not entirely filled up).

Only five ingredients, four members of the Web team baking together, and countless experts on staff to lend a hand. How difficult could this be?

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First, gather the ingredients – 4 eggs, 2 cups heavy cream, 5 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 2 tablespoons Demerara sugar. Honestly, this took us almost an hour. We have no idea where anything lives in the test kitchen, and the Vanilla Bean Crush is nowhere to be found. Why? Oh, because PJ has both bottles of it sitting on her desk.

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PJ – probably the only woman in the world who has two bottles of vanilla sitting on her desk at all times.

OK, now that we’ve done all our kitchen prep (phew!), let’s get going…

Now, one thing I remembered from the class is that the eggs are supposed to be at room temperature. They’re ice cold when I take them out of the refrigerator, and we don’t have enough time to let them sit and warm up…  Just at that moment, in walks Andrea, “Dr. Brown,” our resident test baker/chemist. “Put them in a bowl of warm water to quicken the process.” Great idea! Thanks for the tip, Andrea.

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A side note – why do the eggs need to be at room temperature? This has caused a fierce debate among the bakers in our test kitchen.  The consensus? Cold egg yolks will cool down soft butter, so when creaming butter they will ruin the emulsion and result in a lumpy mixture. Cold egg whites do not hold air as well as thinner, room-temperature egg whites, so when whisking do not come out as light and fluffy. But it turns out that for crème brûlée, it should not make a difference if the eggs are cold.

Second step, preheat the oven to 350°F. But which oven can we use? Does the top one run too hot? Wasn’t one of them not working properly? We can’t ask PJ – she’s not supposed to know what we’re up to! We’ll just take a guess, and use the top oven.

Now that the eggs have warmed up to room temperature, even though we’re not certain we needed to do that step, we separate the egg yolks. Apparently there are many ways to separate an egg…

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Jim, our rebellious Web developer, prefers to separate them with a spoon…

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I guess I’m a bit more traditional, and prefer to use the shell.

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Next, in a 1-quart saucepan or double boiler, heat the heavy cream to just before boiling. But do this slowly, and be careful not to boil the cream.

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Look for the milkfat to turn yellow – this happens right before the boil.

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Notice the bubbles just around the edges of the saucepan. That’s perfect.  Remove from the heat.

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In a bowl, whisk together the sugar and the egg yolks to dissolve the sugar. If you have it, superfine sugar works beautifully in this recipe, as it dissolves very quickly. If not, regular sugar is just fine.

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Another side  note: be careful not to do this step before you scald the cream. If you do it too soon and let the mixture sit, then the sugar will coagulate the proteins in the eggs, and cause a curdling effect. We made this mistake the first time and the texture of the crème brûlée was not as smooth as it should have been, a little “eggy.” Again, it took a team of many bakers to help de-bug this texture issue!

Next temper the egg mixture with a tiny bit of the hot cream. This will help to slowly bring the egg mixture to a warm temperature without cooking the yolks.

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Then, slowly add the remaining cream to the egg mixture, and mix well.

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Stir in the vanilla.  If you’d like to add any other flavorings, now is the time to do so.  I tried this at home with 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract, and the very subtle almond flavor was delicious.

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Strain the custard into four 2”-high ramekins. Here, we used our individual pie slice pans, since we could not find any ramekins in the kitchen…

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Place the ramekins in a large baking pan. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. The hot water bath helps to cook the custard evenly, without over-baking on the edges.

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Bake until the custard is firm in the center, about 30 minutes. You can jiggle them a bit to check. You don’t want to overbake this – these above look perfect: set, but not brown on top.

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Remove the ramekins from the water bath. Don’t worry if your finger dents the top, like Jim did here – it will be covered with the sugar topping soon enough!

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Let them cool completely on the counter.

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Then, place in the refrigerator for at least 1-2 hours. You need the custard to be very cold, so that it remains cold when you brown the sugar on top.

When the ramekins are completely cold, remove from the fridge. This is a perfect dessert to prepare ahead of time, and pull out as you’re making after-dinner coffee to have with dessert.

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Sprinkle coarse Demerara sugar over the top of the custards, and put right under a hot broiler to caramelize the sugar.

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Well, turns out we chose the wrong oven – the broiler was broken. So, luckily we had a kitchen torch to use. (So sorry, folks – we currently are not selling these online, but you can usually find them at our retail store in VT or other kitchen stores.)

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What fun!  But safety first – we moved from the wood counter to the metal counter for this part.

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We all had to take turns trying this out…

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Janet, the creative genius behind our Web site, had the great idea of putting fruit on top, then the sugar, and then caramelizing.  Mmmmm, so delicious! And if you really like the crusty top, try adding a second layer of sugar and caramelizing the top again.

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Phew, we did it. And even with all our blunders along the way, I have to say that it was so easy and delicious, I made it again at home this weekend.

A very happy birthday to you, PJ!

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Hope you’re enjoying your day off as much as we enjoyed baking (and eating) the crème brûlée!

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for crème brûlée.

comments

  1. PJ Hamel

    Well, at LAST I get to read this blog. I knew all the furtive scurrying around was related to my birthday. GREAT JOB WEB TEAM – you guys rock. And the crème brûlée is awesome… For anyone who wasn’t convinced before, King Arthur Flour is the best place to work (with the best employee-owners) in the world! Thanks – to ALL of you wishing me a happy birthday. Wish I could respond the everyone individually… but thanks. AND King Arthur FLOUR has the BEST customers/readers/bakers in the world! PJH

    Reply
  2. Joni M

    Wow, I’ve never tried to make this because I didn’t have the torch, so I’m really glad to know I could do the carmelization under the broiler–wouldn’t have ever even tried that! Thanks for the tip, AND the wonderful blog! btw–Happy Birthday PJ!

    Reply
  3. Richard

    Happy Birthday, PJ!!

    I’ve been reading this blog about a year now, yet never left a comment, so why not do so today and wish one of my fav baker/bloggers a wonderful BD! I’ve truly enjoyed all of the adventures and recipes that you have shared so far.

    You, and the other fine folks at KAF have encouraged me to dive into baking, with confidence, b/c of the step-by-step info, wonderful pics and well-written recipes/commentary.

    Keep doing what you do, and I look forward to our next adventure!

    You warm my heart, Richard. We LOVE to inspire people to bake! Thanks for your kind comments – and for finally chiming in. – PJH

    Reply
  4. Eric

    Happy Birthday, PJ!

    I’ll knock off a Pepperidge Farms frozen coconut cake in your honor! ;0)

    Aw, Eric, you remembered! ;) PJH

    Reply
  5. Sue

    Happy Birthday PJ!

    You obviously work with a great team!
    I love the photos of your office and desk, and your co-workers.

    Thanks to Halley and the rest of the team for stepping up to the plate as you celebrate today.

    Reply
  6. dksbook

    When broiling, I also place the ramekins in an ice-water bath. Just an added precaution to keep the custard ice-cold!

    Reply
  7. Patricia Edson

    Thanks for the lovely recipe, with interesting extra info – such as you don’t really need to warm up the eggs for this one. My grandson, Jonathan, would say you skimped on the sugar on the top. He LOVES Crème Brulée and thinks it should be covered with a solid layer of caramel-colored melted sugar! Personal preference, I suspect.

    Reply
  8. Alvara

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY PJ. I HOPE YOU REALLY TOOK THE DAY OFF!
    I think you have a wonderful place to work. I was only to the store
    once but thought it was great. Would love to see the kitchen where
    you bake. Through the blog and pictures it’s almost like we are there.
    Have a wonderful year.

    Reply
  9. Diane

    Happy birthday, PJ!! I am happy to have access to step by step crème brûlée. It is the best dessert to have my teenage boys make in class. They love that torch!

    Hope you day is as sweet at this dessert.

    Reply
  10. cindy leigh

    Happy Birthday PJ!
    Thank you (all of you!) for all the wonderful, creative, well written, and tasty recipes. I appreciate all your hard work and especially the personal touch you add to your work.
    I love creme brulee and will definiately try the vanilla crush.
    I hope you had a great day and best wishes for the coming year.
    (and aren’t you lucky to have such great colleagues!)
    Cindy

    Indeed I am VERY lucky, Cindy – and we’re all lucky that we’re able to connect with one another virtually, aren’t we? LOVE the Internet… Thanks for your kind words. PJH

    Reply
  11. elianna

    Happiest of birthdays, PJ! I have to say, out of all the bakers I’ve ever met in the 20 years I’ve lived…you are my hero! :)

    Elianna – Thank you so much! What a sweet thing to say… I appreciate your connecting here. :) PJH

    Reply
  12. Memoria

    Joyeaux Anniversaire! Buon compleanno! Feliz aniversário! ¡Feliz cumpleaños!

    Gracias, Memoria! Et merci… Grazie… uh, obrigada? :) PJH

    Reply
  13. Hoa

    Happy Birthday, PJ! I am a first time poster and novice baker. I love the step by step directions on this blog. I didn’t grow up baking so this blog is very helpful. I made the crème brûlée and it was easy to make and very yummy.

    Congratulations, Hoa – the Web team’s instructions were first-rate weren’t they? Thanks for joining in – PJH

    Reply
  14. Deb

    About the egg yolk temperature … wouldn’t the sugar dissolve more quickly in room temperature yolks than in cold yolks? Maybe room temp yolks make timing of the steps easier? Just a thought … I haven’t make creme brulee yet.

    Makes sense to me, Deb – just like sugar dissolving more easily in hot tea than iced tea. But then, I wasn’t in on those kitchen discussions – they’d forbidden me from leaving my desk… :) PJH

    Reply
  15. Jean

    Happy birthday, PJ — you’ve inspired and helped my baking so much, I feel like I know you. Best wishes for a wonderful year! And Web Team: great feature!! The fun you have with each other sets the tone for the website and Bakers’ Banter, and it really makes both a wonderful, comfortable place for all of us to come and learn. Thanks all!

    And thanks for joining in the fun, Jean! PJH

    Reply
  16. Kimberly D

    A belated Happy Birthday PJ!!
    I enjoy your blogs and love the way you break down the recipes with step by step pictures and the time you and the rest of the KAF take time to answer questions I write.

    Reply
  17. MaryJane

    Sorry I missed the big day PJ, but I was thinking about you. Hope you had a great time. It was lots of fun watching the web team in the kitchen, they were so concerned about getting things just right!

    Many happy returns of the day! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  18. Sharon

    My husband came home from the hardware store one day with a small torch — my son and I immediately looked at each other and said “creme brulee”!! That same son quickly volunteered me to make creme brulee for his french class at school. Yes, you can make 35 individual creme brulees using foil cupcake liners!! And look so impressive!!

    Reply
  19. Jen Share

    A belated Happy Birthday!
    Thanks for another great recipe!
    Just have to say, Vanilla Bean Crush is my absolute favorite as well! It’s an awesome product and makes any cake or ice cream it’s used in extra delicious! I especially love using it in panna cotta.
    Heck, I’ve even been known to dab it behind my ears!

    Dabbing behind the ears – Mmmmmmmm…… PJH

    Reply
  20. Tom

    :) BD 2 U, :) BD 2 U, :) BD dear PJ, :) BD 2 U!

    The creme brulee looks like it was wonderful. In honor of your birthday, I think I’ll make a zucchini cake (’tis the season, you know). If VT was a little closer to OR I’d send you a piece.

    LOVE the “graphics,” Tom – I can almost hear you singing all the way out there in Oregon… Almost. And I’ll enjoy that zucchinni (chocolate?) cake vicariously- :) PJH

    Reply
  21. Kathleen

    A very Happy Belated Birthday P.J.!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What a great place to work and what wonderful co-workers.

    Indeed, Kathleen… PJH

    Reply
  22. Heidi

    Happy Birthday, PJ! Thank you KA bakers for blogging this honestly, showing things don’t go perfect even when you work at the coolest Baking Company on Earth! We thought we were the only ones who couldn’t find things and had broken ovens! Great recipe instructions!

    Reply
  23. Marcia

    Thank you for the directions. I have not made this for many years. But, as luck would have it, I was in Washington, DC this week and Tuesday, I ate at McCormick and Schmick. The meal came with coffee Créme Brülée, I despise the taste of coffee, so they brought vanilla instead. The top was completely covered in a nice thick crust. They’d scattered a small handful of fresh blueberries on top. WONDERFUL and made me think about making it. So, I got home a few minutes ago and see this on my RSS.

    I guess for those who like the taste of coffee, this would be a nice variation.

    Reply
  24. Cathy Webb

    You and your team have taken the “scary-ness” out of a wonderful dessert! Love the sugar melting over the fruit! Makes me think I’m eating something healthy! Yum!
    -Cathy
    PS: You get to celebrate your birthday all month. New birthday rules!

    Reply
  25. Christina

    A little late to the party, but a very Happy Birthday to you PJ and wishes for many more!

    Those creme brulees look fantastic! What a treat!

    Thanks, Christina – It’s never too late to join the party! PJH

    Reply
  26. Joni M

    Wow–I tried my hand at this for the first time ever over the weekend knowing it was hubby’s favorite dessert, and with each spoonful he declared it the best he’s ever had…not sure his comments weren’t just trying to butter me up for more or if he was really telling me the truth, and then he asked me how hard it was to whip up and could we have it again sometime soon…LOL, so thank you so much for giving me that little nudge to try it! He asked me how I got the top just right cause it was perfect too, and I said well I didn’t have a small torch so I did it under the broiler and he asked if I knew that he does in fact have a small torch out in the garage…So, broiler or torch–I will certainly be making this again as it was so easy, and well–we BOTH loved the results! Thank you again so much for such a wonderful place to come to for the bestest recipes! You all are my heroes!

    Oh yea, and just wondering–could a person could use like fat free half and half vs the heavy cream–would that work?
    Hi Joni,
    If you want to experiment with the fat free 1/2 & 1/2, try replacing just some of the heavy cream, instead of all of it. This way you can make small adjustments at a time, instead of replacing the whole 9 yards. Have fun with the torch! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  27. Kath L

    Happy belated birthday to you, PJ!

    I decided years ago that I should never learn how to make creme brulee. I love it WAY too much! And with vanilla bean crush in it, too? Oh my.

    But this post makes it look so easy and your readers are raving about the results, so I might just have to give it a try after all. I have some red currants at home that would look so pretty on top.

    Thanks for all you do to make us more competent and confident in the kitchen!

    AWWW….. (preen preen…) :) XXX PJH

    Reply
  28. Sue E. Conrad

    Talk about a day late and a dollar short!!!! Was reading the latest blog about the unbleached cake flour to be introduced shortly, then noticed a list of blogs I hadn’t seen before. Decided to click on the creme brulee one…………and lo and behold, found out your birthday was July 21st!!!! Why the excitement, you ask?? Well, that also happens to be our grandson Benjamin’s birthday!! How wonderful that he gets to share it with such a special person!! Happy VERY belated birthday wishes, P.J.

    Reply
  29. ren finch

    Ooh I can finally try something I love and always thought it too complicated.I hadn’t realized that the pudding had to be put in the fridge before the caramel.I love vanilla too.It is nice to have found your blog all the way from here in Rome.ciao Ren

    Ciao bella, Ren – I’ll be there for dinner! :) PJH

    Reply

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