The very first time that I was served creme brulee, it was described to me as "fancy pudding for grown-ups." I had always liked pudding, probably because my family ate it fairly often for dessert when I was growing up. My mom would make the "cook and serve" version, which needed time to cool and formed a rubbery skin on top, for my brother and I to enjoy during our 1 hour of allotted post-dinner T.V. time. In my lunch-box, she would pack pudding cups, the sort that came in the aluminum tins with the pull-tabs (in all honesty, these were occasionally bartered for classmates' TastyCakes or Gummy Bears.) We were also big fans of the Jello Pudding Pops and Swiss Miss Pudding Bars during the summer. Come to think of it, what ever happened to those? They were fantastic and sooo much better than your everyday, run-of-the-mill fudge-bar.
Anyhow, back to the brulee. When I heard this comparison to pudding, I thought: "Hey! Pudding is pretty darn good, so even though I am always wary of food described as grown-up, I'll give it a try." From the moment that my spoon broke through that crackly, caramelized, glassy shell, and then plunged into a much creamier than pudding, vanilla bean-speckled custard, I had a hunch that what I was about to taste would be significantly better than the lunch-box, shelf-stable treat of my childhood. Suddenly, grown-up food, grown-up desserts anyhow, seemed like a pretty good idea.
Creme brulee is one of those desserts that is hard to resist, and even harder to stop digging into, should someone order one for the table "to share." Something about the contrast of the crisp, slightly burned caramel top and the smooth-as-silk center makes this dessert worthy of a spot on virtually every dessert menu across America. Some stick to plain, but lovely, vanilla bean, while others venture into chocolate, pistachio, and Grand Marnier varietals. This version, a seasonally-appropriate pumpkin flavor, was inspired, believe it or not, by a limited edition pudding flavor, which I saw in the baking aisle last week! A splash (or two) of Brandy provides that extra grown-up touch! Here are my tips for perfecting pumpkin creme brulee:
- If you do not own a kitchen torch, don't feel like you need to run out and purchase one to make creme brulee! An alternative method is to place the sugared custards about 4 inches under a preheated broiler, watching carefully, until the sugar has melted. You will achieve better results with a kitchen torch, but this method still works.
- If you do want to purchase a kitchen torch, instead of heading to the overpriced kitchen supply store, head to the hardware store instead. Hardware stores sell small blow torches that can serve as kitchen torches--at a lower cost.
- When baking the custards in the water bath, if you are using shallow cups, then only fill the water to about the halfway point on the cups. You do not want simmering water to spill over the edges and land on the custards.
- The baked custards can be covered and chilled for up to 3 days.
- Feel free to replace the Brandy with rum, Cognac, or even Grand Marnier.
Brandied Pumpkin Creme Brulee
3 cups whipping cream
2/3 cup sugar, plus more for brulee topping
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons canned pumpkin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons Brandy
Preheat the oven to 325F degrees. Place 8 (6-ounce) ramekins or custard cups in a roasting pan.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the cream to just under a simmer; remove from the heat.
Combine the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl, whisking until smooth. Gradually whisk in the hot cream. Strain the mixture through a mesh strainer into a pitcher.
Divide the custard evenly among the ramekins. Fill the pan with hot water to a depth of 1-inch. Cover the pan with aluminum foil, crimping around the edges of the pan. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until the custard is barely set and jiggles when shaken. Remove the ramekins from the water bath, let cool, and chill 3 hours.
Remove the ramekins from the refrigerator. Sprinkle the surface of each custard evenly with a few teaspoons of sugar. Caramelize the sugar with a kitchen blowtorch, moving hte flame quickly across the custard. Let cool for 2-3 minutes before serving.