Lemon Crème Brûlée

Like most, I crave a sweet thing at the end of a meal. A square of chocolate usually does the trick. But when people come over, I make dessert. Mostly, I do it to please others. I learned long ago that a grand, sugary finale makes people swoon. It matters less the hours you marinate the protein, the itsy bitsy chopped herbs you sprinkle on the plate. What they really want is dessert.

And so I have developed a small repertoire of killer sweets. Having recently acquired a new, slim kitchen toy that doubles as a welding tool, I have added crème brûlée to my dessert list. This is that chilled, creamy dish with a brittle veneer you find in most French restaurants. Most of us have the ingredients in our fridge at all times.

Crème brûlée can be mixed up in half an hour. It keeps in the fridge for a few days. If you don’t want to spend about $20 on a torch, get your broiler very hot and run the filled ramekins under the flame for a few minutes. You really can’t serve crème brûlée without the crispy top.

For extra credit, play around with flavored crème brûlée. Because it’s made with cream, you can drop tasty things into the cream while it heats. This infuses the dish with the flavor you choose, be it lemon peel, lavender springs, cloves, dried roses, lemongrass stalks, ginger knobs, etc. For fancy flecks of black from vanilla, scrape the insides of a vanilla pod into the cream. Strain the cream after it’s heated and proceed with the recipe.

Take my advice. A sure-fire way to make your guests happy is to make them a homemade dessert. Don’t worry about ironing the napkins or clearing away the clutter before the guests arrive. Cook them something sweet. Dessert masks many a domestic shortcoming.

 

Lemon Crème Brûlée
Adapted from long departed, good old Gourmet magazine

Serves 8

3 large lemons
3 cups heavy cream
About 10 tablespoons sugar, preferably turbinado
Salt
6 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Special equipment: 8 (4-oz) flameproof ramekins; a small blowtorch

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325º F.

Finely grate 3 tablespoons zest from lemons into cream in a medium-sized heavy saucepan. Stir in 7 tablespoons sugar and a pinch of salt. Heat mixture over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until almost boiling. Remove from heat.

Lightly beat yolks in a bowl, then gradually whisk in hot cream. Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a quart-size glass measure and stir in vanilla and 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice. Divide among ramekins.

Arrange ramekins in a roasting pan and bake in a water bath (filling roasting pan with boiling water to halfway up sides of ramekins), until custards are just set around edge but centers wobble when pan is gently shaken, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool custards in water bath 20 minutes, then remove from pan and chill, uncovered, at least 4 hours. (Custards will set completely as they chill.)

Sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon sugar evenly over each custard, then move blowtorch flame evenly back and forth close to sugar until sugar is caramelized. Let stand until caramel is hardened, 3 to 5 minutes.

Cooks’ note: Custards can be chilled, covered with a sheet of plastic wrap after 4 hours, up to 2 days. Very gently blot with paper towels before sprinkling with sugar and caramelizing.

 

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