Crème brûlée with poached rhubarb
At the start of my cooking career it seemed that most restaurants had a crème brûlée on the menu. Chefs went a bit nutty professor and started adding all kinds of strange flavours – everything from truffle oil and artichokes to green tea.
Fortunately, at the time, I worked with a French chef who was a purist when it came to most things pastry. The recipe he taught me 25 years ago is similar to the one below except he added about six vanilla beans and baked them in a thin layer in a large gratin dish – an amazing benchmark moment the first time I tried it. I immediately understood the importance of the vanilla bean in the pastry kitchen. It is an underrated flavour that is often used as a B-grade supporting actor in desserts and not often given the limelight it deserves.
Vanilla extract or liquids will never replace the flavour of a vanilla bean. Yes, they are flinchingly expensive; the flavour, though, is incomparable. To get bang for buck from your bean, don’t ever discard it once used. Wash it and pat it dry and find a warm place to dry it out. On top of the fridge usually works or on a low temperature in the oven for a few hours. Once completely dry, add the dried vanilla bean to a jar of castor sugar and leave in the pantry to infuse. After a few days you will have a terrific jar of flavoured vanilla sugar, a useful addition to most cakes or desserts. The other thing to do is push the dried vanilla bean into a bottle of vodka and leave it hidden in the freezer for emergencies.
Crème brûlée is not really a difficult recipe and not overly challenging to master. Understanding the temperature of your oven helps, as does removing the custard from the oven just as it sets. Left too long in the oven it will slowly start to curdle.
The most challenging thing at home is caramelising the thin layer of sugar on the top of the set cream. A blowtorch does seem like an excessive tool to have in the toolkit but you may be surprised as to how useful it can be. If a blowtorch is out of the question, though, there are electric brûlée irons available online that can also do the trick. Failing all this, there is the grill function on your oven that has worked for me and still continues to do so. The bliss spot for this recipe is the magic moment you tap the top of the toffee with the back of your spoon, cracking the paper-thin sheet on top of the set custard.
Crème brûlée with poached rhubarb
– 4 sticks of rhubarb
– ½ cup orange juice
– 3 tbsp castor sugar
– 400ml cream
– 100ml milk
– 1 vanilla pod, split and scraped
– 4 egg yolks
– 2 tbsp castor sugar
– ½ cup of castor sugar for the caramel
Preheat your oven to 160ºC.
To prepare the rhubarb, peel and slice into one-centimetre pieces, then place in a small saucepan with the orange juice and three tablespoons of the sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook until the rhubarb starts to soften but retains its form. Transfer to a container and cool in the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, combine the cream, milk and vanilla seeds in a saucepan and gently bring to a simmer. Combine the egg yolks and the remaining sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk. Slowly pour the hot liquid into the bowl with the sugar and egg mixture, whisking the custard continually.
Strain the juice of the poached rhubarb and evenly disperse the fruit in one layer between six ramekins. Pour the custard on top (about two centimetres deep) then place the ramekins in a deep oven tray.
Place the tray in the oven, then pour boiling water into the tray holding the custards to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30-40 minutes (they will have a jelly-like wobble when done).
Remove the tray from the oven and leave it to cool on your kitchen bench for 30 minutes (until the set custards are at room temperature).
Place the ramekins in the refrigerator for two hours or, even better, overnight to cool completely.
To serve, scatter one tablespoon of sugar evenly over the surface of the brûlée. Using a blowtorch, caramelise to a dark brown, carefully turning the brûlée in your hand as you go to get an even sheet of caramelised sugar on the surface. Leave to cool for a few minutes to let the sugar set hard, then serve immediately.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 1, 2017 as "Get cracking". Subscribe here.