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...
and, she decorates the Web room for our birthday celebrations...
and, she makes us wear the silly birthday hat...
and, she makes the card.
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.
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...
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?
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.
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.
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...
Jim, our rebellious Web developer, prefers to separate them with a spoon...
I guess I'm a bit more traditional, and prefer to use the shell.
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.
Look for the milkfat to turn yellow – this happens right before the boil.
Notice the bubbles just around the edges of the saucepan. That's perfect. Remove from the heat.
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.
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.
Then, slowly add the remaining cream to the egg mixture, and mix well.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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!
Let them cool completely on the counter.
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.
Sprinkle coarse Demerara sugar over the top of the custards, and put right under a hot broiler to caramelize the sugar.
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.)
What fun! But safety first – we moved from the wood counter to the metal counter for this part.
We all had to take turns trying this out...
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.
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!
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.