Vanilla crème brûlée is one of those classic desserts that everyone knows about and loves. And it’s been on the menu at The Hand & Flowers right from the very start. As far as I’m concerned, the key to a properly perfect brûlée is to have three distinct flavours that you taste – vanilla, eggs and caramel – so that it’s not just a sweet, creamy dessert. And I’ve got Alex Bentley to thank for teaching me that. This is 100% the brûlée recipe I was cooking as a young chef at Monsieur Max, where he was head chef. I think Alex was given or inherited the recipe from Max Renzland, the restaurant’s chef-patron. Apparently, it was an old Elizabeth David recipe; she must have learnt it during her travels in France, so goodness knows how old it really is.
Until Alex taught this recipe to me, most crème brûlée recipes I’d come across were sweet and made only with egg yolks. This one uses whole eggs and just a small amount of sugar. It was a game changer for me. I suddenly knew how to make a magical crème brûlée. The technique that really brings the dessert to life is its caramelisation on top. Instead of just melting the sugar, Alex taught me to caramelise it really heavily. At Monsieur Max, customers sometimes complained that the sugar was burnt, but that’s the whole point. It’s supposed to be; the caramelisation makes it taste toasty and nutty. You end up with a smooth, vanilla dessert that’s creamy with a bittersweet crunchy topping.
We match it at The Hand & Flowers with an Innis & Gunn craft beer rather than a dessert wine. The beer’s aged in old whiskey barrels so it has this really rich toffee, creamy flavour, which harmonises beautifully with the
750ml double cream
1 vanilla pod
4 medium free-range eggs
30g caster sugar
Put the cream and vanilla pod into a heavy-based saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
Beat the eggs and sugar together in a bowl until smoothly blended. Bring the vanilla-infused cream back to the boil, then slowly pour onto the beaten egg mixture, whisking as you do so to combine.
Pour the mixture back into the pan and cook, stirring constantly, over a medium-low heat until the custard thickens and reaches 88°C (check the temperature with a digital probe). Immediately remove from the heat and pass through a fine chinois into a clean bowl.
Press a layer of cling film onto the surface to prevent a skin forming and leave to cool for 20 minutes or until the custard is at room temperature. Pour the custard into a high-powered jug blender (Vitamix) and blitz for 30 seconds; this will lighten it slightly.
Now pour the custard into crème brûlée dishes or ramekins, dividing it equally (about 125ml per dish). Cover each dish with cling film, leaving a small gap on one side, to allow any moisture to evaporate. Stand the dishes on a tray and place in the fridge to set; this will take about 3 hours.
200g demerara sugar
When ready to serve, sprinkle a generous, even layer of demerara sugar over the surface of each set custard. Wipe the edge of the dish with a clean cloth.
Using a cook’s blowtorch, caramelise the sugar, starting from the edges and working towards the centre. Take the caramel to a dark brown – this dish is all about balancing the rich creamy egg custard with the slightly bitter caramel flavour.
Leave to cool for about 5 minutes before serving.
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