Creme Brulee preferences, your thoughts needed

I have admitted here before that I don’t really have a sweet tooth.  As the years pass, the process of tasting and tasting and tasting my desserts as I make them every day has put me in a state of sugar overload.  So not only do I not have a sweet tooth, I have somewhat of a repulsion to sweet.

This overexposure, I believe, keeps me honest.  It keeps my desserts balanced in a way that the sweet is tolerable to me.  Not only that, but my distaste for just-plain-sweet helps remind me that my job is to create the culmination to your experience in a restaurant, which just happens to be the time you are most welcome to sweet flavors, rather than to just put something sweet on a plate.

Around 4 in the afternoon, when I hit my 8 hour mark in the kitchen, my fingers start to creep into the cooks prep work, snagging a piece of spice coated cauliflower waiting to be roasted, or a spoon of cooked chard waiting to become a gratin.  And the cooks laugh as I mumble the words, “mmmmm, not sweet.”

By that time in the day, the sweet part of my palate has been “rode hard and put away wet” so to speak.

But in no way should anyone ever think I don’t love dessert.  I do.  In particular, I love the act of finalizing a meal.  I love extending a social situation.  Sitting around a table with friends old and new,  leaning back in my chair, hunger satiated, but desiring to prolong the time, continue the conversations and laughter.  The time is coming to a close, but not until you have nibbled a little more, one last time, as you bring your conversations to their end.  Or if it’s just two of us, splitting a dessert, leaning in closer, talking about the flavors, creating a shared experience.

For me, this can happen with a few pieces of cheese, adorned with fruits, nuts, and honey, or a glass of sherry.  A satsuma, perfect in season, or slices of peach dipped in fresh yogurt.  At a friends house, I swooned over ripe strawberries dipped in lime curd.  One of my favorite recent experiences was a plate of bitter, nearly burnt almonds, and shards of dark, dark, dark chocolate.  At home a small square of nice chocolate is often the end of my dinner, as short and sweet as saying, “the end” after telling a story.  And in restaurants that hire pastry talent, I love seeing and appreciating another pastry chefs expression.

As for the desserts I make?  Enjoyment is somewhat lost in analysis.  It’s near impossible for me to eat them without completely dissecting them, looking for flaws to perfect.  And trust me, there are always things to improve.

But of the desserts I just flat out don’t like?  Those I would never order at a restaurant?  There is really just one.

Creme Brulee.

I really don’t like eating creme brulee.  It’s so rich.  And creamy, and custardy.  And that shattering layer of caramelized sugar?  Meh.

I get why people like it.  It’s rich, and creamy, and custardy, and there is this thin layer of shattering caramelized sugar on top.  It’s just not my thing.

It doesn’t help that every restaurant without a pastry chef has their nubile pantry cook, or worse, dishwasher throw creme brulees together.  So the percentage of mediocre brulee’s is out there, or worse, trio’s of mediocre brulees!

So when I make creme brulee for my menu, It’s not that I struggle, it’s just that it doesn’t mean anything to me.  I can’t internalize it, relish the simplicity of the contrasting textures.  Aside from the sand-castle-smashing little kid in me that loves cracking the sugary top, I don’t feel any emotion when I imagine sitting with a creme brulee in front of me.

I make it the way I think is best.  The custard set a hint firmer, certainly not loose in the center at all.  The base is all cream, baked in shallow dishes for maximum surface area, and infused with an interesting flavor, kaffir-lime leaf and lemongrass under-toned with chamomile at the moment.  I pull back on the sugar quite a bit, so the custard is never too sweet.  On top I melt the first layer of sugar with the torch, leaving it colorless and clear.  A second layer of sugar is bruleed, caramelizing the sugar according to the flavor of the custard.  A light amber for delicate aromatic brulees like the kaffir-lemongrass, dark, bitter notes for flavors like butterscotch, or vanilla.

I demand that the cooks let it sit for a full 2 minutes after torching the top before the servers are even aware it is ready.  If the sugar is at all warm and flexible, it won’t shatter when you tap it with a spoon.  And in a dessert with only 2 textural elements, this cracking of the sugary top is the only interactive part the dessert plays wiht the diner.  If it is not perfect, that’s 33 percent of the experience botched.

But honestly, it’s kind of a guess.  I do my best, but the dessert doesn’t hold a special place in my heart.  After making it the way I see fit, I still have no desire to eat it.  Ever.

So I ask of you out there, creme brulee fanatics, those that hold this dessert above all.  What are your preferences?  What does this dessert mean to you?  What constituted the best and worst creme brulee you have ever tasted?

16 Responses to “Creme Brulee preferences, your thoughts needed”

  1. Loving Annie says:

    It sounds like your creme brulee is flawless because it is not too sweet, and the custard is firm yet creamy.

    The addition of fresh berries completely covering the top of the sugar after it is torched and cooled for a moment is what always makes me love a creme brulee.

    Sliced strawberries or bananas, raspberries or blueberries, just make the custard into something sublime with every bite.

    The worst creme brulee is sickeningly sweet and heavy.

    The best ones are simply delicate, light and melt in your mouth without an aftertaste.

    Loving Annie

  2. Leslie says:

    Well, here’s another way to divide the world into two people: those who love crème brulee and those who can’t be bothered. I can’t help you as I fall into the latter camp too. Other than ice cream, I don’t usually find desserts satisfying unless they include at least a nod to some form of bread (crust, pastry, cookie, cake). I wonder if crème brulee ambivalence in others could be explained by this too? I think I would only be attracted to crème brulee on a dessert menu if it incorporated something starchy, in which case I guess it wouldn’t be a crème brulee? More like a sweet quiche or something.

  3. Roberto N. says:

    Well, I do have a bit of a sweet tooth, but I’ll be willing to try something with less sugar.

    I’m at a dilemma about creme brulée. I like it a lot, but when it comes to making dessert, I prefer something that allows more flavors, temperatures and textures to interact.

    Like you, I also like my creme brulée a bit firm, and I also like larger surface area. What I just recently started thinking about was the sugar coat. I’ve been wondering about incorporating some flavor into the sugar. I’m interested by that double caramelizing and to burning according to the flavors.

  4. j.o. says:

    They are never as good as they should be. I think people get them because they think they are lower cal than other desserts – are they really. Your Hot Date deal makes the conversation irrelevant.

  5. David Ornstein says:

    Two types. First, cardomom with a dash of pepper. I had a perfectly created one, really fresh cream, etc. It was really good. Thought sweet. The other one was the Foie Gras Brulle from Michel Richard’s Happy in the Kitchen. I did it at my New Year’s Day party last year and it was loves all around. It’s got various gfruits on top including grapefruit which really helps, both with any lingering sweetness from the cream but also cuts the lingering fat from the foie.

  6. Al says:

    I have always prefered Brulée’s cousin, creme caramel. For me its all about the rich eggy custard with a warm syrup. Yes its sweeter, but its also much rarer, and consequently usually done much better than a run of the mill Brulée.

  7. Chuck says:

    I’m a big fan of custard, but I don’t really like creme brulee. So, I’m not the person you’re asking questions of, but I’ll give you my answer anyway. :) It’s the bruleed sugar that doesn’t do it for me. For one thing, eating solid pieces of pure sugar is kind of gross and overly sweet, and then you often get hunks of shell that stick to your teeth and annoy you. Taken together, it never seems nearly as delicious or elegant a dessert as it ought to be.

    Admittedly, though, cracking through the shell is kind of fun. My preference would be for a super-thin yet hard shell that wasn’t so overly sweet, if that’s possible. Then use a relatively deep and narrow ramekin, and I’ll be happy(-er). I wonder if you made the ‘shell’ separately from the custard, could you use some other technique that would allow you to have a thinner, non-sticky shell?

    I’m kind of partial to pot du creme with a layer of flavored syrup at the bottom. It can be very good (and seems more elegant than brulee). In that case you can more easily control how much of the syrup you want, if you don’t like eating straight (flavored) sugar. It adds a nice little bit of surprise, too, when you poke through and discover a little pool of (say) lavender flavor at the bottom.

  8. peabody says:

    I like it on the thicker side. I actually like it to be very chilled with just the top every so warm. I like a little surprise at the bottom. Like a lime creme brulee with blackberries at the bottom…little hidden treasures.

  9. Barzelay says:

    Unlike Leslie, I have almost no interest in bread or cake as part of dessert, unlike they are so dense as to not really be cake (like a flourless chocolate cake), or filled or soaked with some kind of liquid (rum cake, molten chocolate cake).

    But I do love creme brulee. To me, it’s all about the custard, so I suppose I’m no more into creme brulee than I would be into creme caramel with just a touch of light syrup. The burnt sugar crust is nice because the hardened form of sugar doesn’t release as much sugar flavor as, e.g., a syrup. The decreased flavor release keeps it from getting too sweet. Have you ever thought about using something other than sucrose to create the crisp top? Without getting too chemical-y, you could use part isomalt, since it’s less sweet but will still get crisp. Glucose is less sweet but would also inhibit hardening, I would think.

    The biggest problem with creme brulee, I think, is that the normal size is just far too large. I don’t want to eat a cup and a half of that custard. I also don’t want to eat 3 bites each of 3 different cremes brulees. But there’s nothing better than a 3-bite creme brulee. It presents a difficulty for restaurant service, because you can’t sell a dessert that small. But as a complimentary free pre-dessert, or post-dessert, it’s perfect. Or, if your restaurant were bold, offer the mini creme brulees for $2. Who wouldn’t order those?

    Anyway, my favorite cremes brulees taste like custard. If there’s a flavoring, it’s subtle. The lemongrass and kaffir lime you describe above sounds great. My favorite ever was a batch of maple-flavored mini creme brulees that I was going to serve as a tease before dessert. http://www.eatfoo.com/archives/2008/12/mini_maple_creme_brulee.php

  10. kayenne says:

    I’m not fond of creme brulee too… and since it’s usually vanilla.. and I don’t like plain vanilla… plus, as you said, it’s usually done with mediocrity. The only one I’ve ordered and tried was cooked too fast on too hot an oven, I think. A lot of small bubbles trapped in the custard – bad texture.

    Like Al above, I prefer creme caramel… except here in Manila, we call it Leche Flan. I usually make it at home too… cheaper and richer tasting that commercial variety.

  11. margaux says:

    I love crème brulée, and will always order it if it’s available. I prefer a thicker custard, completely smooth (which doesn’t happen often) that isn’t too sweet – that’s what the burnt sugar is for. The best one I ever had was lemongrass flavoured, and had a layer of sugar so thick you could skate on it.

    p.s. just found the site and I think it’s great!

  12. Luke D says:

    I love love love creme brulee. Personally, while I enjoy sampling various flavors of the delicious concoction, I will always prefer the simple flavors of the custard with (or without) a light vanilla. A few berries on top are fine for my taste – but I think of them as more of a garnish.

  13. janelle says:

    I love it; mostly I like the basic version not too pumped up on alternate flavors. I make a very simple one with Grand Marnier. YUM. I will say this: I like creme brulee but NOT panna cotta. That one does nothing for me. Perhaps is similar to people who like clams but not mussels, just oysters or all three. It is a funny thing, food and each individual. I always thought pumpkin pie was the quintessential love or hate it. Creme brulee too—good to think about.

    Cheers!

  14. karen says:

    After decades of making crème brulee professionally in all its variations, the only one I can still enjoy is the version done with butternut squash puree, maple syrup, heavy cream, and nutmeg. I know it’s not the classical, but the experience, which it kinda the point about brulee, is the same. Only it’s got some guts to it.

  15. jef says:

    I grew up with leche flan which I find best due to the texture you get with condensed milk. but the problem I have with brulee are torched sugar tops that end up melting the custard. I prefer to use confectioners sugar and ‘burn it’ while keeping the custard in tack and constrasting more of the sweetness of the custard and the bitterness of burnt sugar. Also .confectionars sugar does not create a sugar top that is to thicke

  16. Meimei says:

    I’ve recently started making my own creme brulees. The first one I ever had was a rosemary creme brulee and I fell in love with it. I’ve tried a bunch of others since, but more often than not it’s served plain. I have a sweet tooth, but the desserts I appreciate the most are the subtly flavoured unusal ones.

    I decided to re-create the rosemary creme brulee for my father-in-law’s birthday and only put one layer of sugar on (he is also not a huge fan of sugary sweet) and it turned out lovely. The rosemary flavour was aromatic and light, and cut through the heaviness of the creme nicely. I served it with a sprig of rosemary and blackberries on top.

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