The movie Amélie begins with a whimsical narration about the protagonist’s penchant for indulging in life’s simple pleasures, such as - “cracking the crust of a crème brûlée with the back of a teaspoon or skipping stones on the Canal St. Martin.” It’s a memorable line that resonated with me, and has since become my benchmark for a properly executed crème brûlée topping.
My mother and I took one of our many trips to Paris shortly after the film came out in theatres. Following the film’s adventurous spirit, we strolled around the tree-laden Canal St Martin at sunset, likewise skipping stones and watching the barges pass. Given the opportunity, we always ordered the delectable dessert - gently tapping each crust to suss out the expertise of the pastry chef.
While the dining scene in Paris is incredible, I do believe there’s such a thing as restaurant fatigue. After a week or so, my mother and I would often get more pleasure from stopping by a market to picnic along the Seine or in one of the city’s many beautiful gardens. We also believed that on vacation no meal is complete without dessert, so we would try out the local bakeries’ éclairs and profiteroles, tarte tatins and crème brûlée. Years later, crème brûlée still brings me back to the smell of Parisian pâtisseries and our playful search for the most perfect layer of burnt sugar.
For how impressive it looks, crème brûlée is relatively simple to make. I like to involve my guests in the process by cooking the custard earlier in the day and saving the final step of caramelizing the sugar on top for the end - everyone gets excited about wielding a blowtorch and burning their own top to their desired level of doneness ! You can also get creative with flavors by incorporating rose sugar, earl grey tea or even coffee; during my travels in Provence, the dessert was often infused with lavender from their world-renowned fields.
5 egg yolks
½ cup sugar, more for topping
3 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 Tbsp Grand Marnier
Preheat oven to 315˚F. In a bowl, beat together egg yolks and sugar until just combined. In a saucepan, combine heavy cream and vanilla bean and heat over medium-low heat until just hot, but not boiling. Slowly spoon 1 cup of cream into sugar-egg mixture, stirring continuously. Then pour entire bowl of egg mixture into cream and combine. Add Grand Marnier and stir; discard vanilla bean.
Pour into 6 oz ramekins that have been placed in a baking dish. Carefully pour boiling water halfway up the sides of ramekins to make a water bath. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the custards are barely set when shaken. Remove completely and cool until room temperature, then refrigerate.
When ready to serve, sprinkle about 1 Tbsp of sugar in a thin layer over each custard. Use a kitchen blowtorch to heat evenly and caramelize the sugar topping.
Crème brûlée requires a wine that won’t overpower the delicate flavors of the custard and the bitterness of the burnt sugar. I would recommend a dessert wine - Sauternes have a high residual sugar content and their balance of sweetness and acidity make for a rich, decadent pairing. Alternatively, a Muscat will bring down the sweetness of the vanilla custard while still complementing its flavors.