Ah, the pumpkin pie, a mainstay of every Thanksgiving meal. A good pumpkin pie is absolutely vital. But you’re not going to stop there. No way. “Good enough” isn’t good enough. You demand excellence! You demand a pie that your guests just can’t get enough of no matter how stuffed full of turkey they are. And if you ask me, a crème brûlée is your way of excellence manifesting itself as a pie.
The phrase “crème brûlée” literally means “burnt custard”, referring to the crispy layer of burnt sugar atop the dish. The best part of this dessert is that it is surprisingly easy to make, especially if you understand the science behind the recipe. Lucky for you, I might be able to help you out with that.
A custard is the technical term for a cooked mixture of egg yolk and cream or milk. If you look at the anatomy of the egg, the whites have a high protein content and a very low fat content (almost none), while the yolk have very high fat content and low protein content. When proteins are heated, like when you cook an egg for breakfast, they begin to unravel and coagulate, meaning that they clump together and turn from a liquid to a hard gel. Egg whites do this readily as they are so high in protein, but egg yolks are not as prone to this thanks to their low protein content. The same would happen to a custard: if the custard were to have egg whites, then the proteins would coagulate and result in a very firm texture; if the custard only contain egg yolks, as most custards do, then the protein content of the mixture is minimized, resulting in an ultra creamy texture.
So why do we add cream or milk to the custard? Egg yolks on their own coagulate at approximately 150 degrees Farenheit (60 degrees Celsius). The key to a super creamy custard is to have the egg yolks set as slowly as possible, otherwise the texture would be slightly rubbery if the yolks were to set too quickly. We can prevent this sin by adding cream or milk. The fats in the cream/milk literally surround proteins and insulate them, thus allowing their coagulation temperature to increase to approximately 170 degrees Farenheit (77 degrees Celsius). While I’m on this point, a quick PSA: for the love of all that is mighty, please DO NOT use skim or 1% milk in this recipe. The low fat content will result in a rubbery textured custard with a small pool of milk at the bottom of the custard. You are doing yourself and your guests a severe disservice if you choose to use skim or 1% milk. Trust me.
The other key to a proper crème brûlée is the use of a water bath, or a bain marie, which is fancy cooking jargon for “hot water bath”. You may have noticed that this recipe calls for an oven temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit (163 degrees Celsius), but didn’t I just tell you that the cream mixture will begin to coagulate around 170 degrees Fahrenheit? If the custard were to be put in the oven without a water bath, the outsides would coagulate and become rubbery before the middle even had an opportunity to cook at all (read: raw egg yolk!). The water bath comes to the rescue by moderating the heat surrounding the ramekins filled with custard. Water is a liquid when it is between 32 – 212 degrees Fahrenheit (0-100 degrees Celsius). Water cannot get hotter than 212 degrees Fahrenheit while staying in a liquid form; as soon as it reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it evaporates into vapor. Thus, the bain marie will never go beyond 212 degrees Farenheit, the perfect temperature to surround our precious custards.
I think you will be pleasantly surprised with how easy this recipe is. Use this recipe as a substitute for the traditional pumpkin pie during your next Thanksgiving meal, and I promise you will not be disappointed.