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I've made Crème Caramel/Crème Brûlée several times and don't have too much trouble with it. I'll be making them for company this weekend and thought it would make for a nice spectacle to flambé them. But, I don't have a lot of experience in that technique, and I'd like to make sure that I'm not going to set the entire dining room on fire by accident.

Has anyone attempted (successfully, preferably) to caramelize the sugar in a Crème Brûlée by flambéing the surface as opposed to simply heating it with a torch? And if so, what exactly was involved?

  • How much alcohol would be required for a single standard ramekin?
  • Can it be done safely right inside the ramekin?
  • Can I light it with a quick touch of the torch, or should I use a match instead?
  • Could this have negative effects - i.e. ruining the flavour or melting the gelatinzed cream?
  • How long should I expect it to burn for and how long would it be necessary to wait before eating?
  • Do some types of alcohol work better for this than others? (I'm leaning toward brandy)
  • Anything else I should know or any other precautions I should take?

Basically I'd like to know everything I possibly can about the flambé technique as it would relate specifically to Crème Brûlée before actually attempting it.

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I'd be surprised if it gave you a decent crust, but it'd be very impressive to do a little flambéing on top of an extant crust. –  ceejayoz Sep 15 '10 at 22:29
    
@cee: Oh, I'm not really expecting a crust. I just think it would look cool and would probably succeed in caramelizing the sugar and maybe impart a little of the liquor taste. Just want to make sure it won't also caramelize the ramekins and/or ruin the flavour. –  Aaronut Sep 15 '10 at 23:12
    
It might work better if you did it as a creme caramel - Essentially the same thing, but gooey caramel at the bottom of the ramekin (Which you can turn out on the plate) instead of a crust on the top. -- This would be really good flambéed with 60% Stroh's –  Chris Cudmore Nov 23 '10 at 14:20
    
@chris: I made crème caramels for the same event, but I didn't flambé them. There's really nothing to flambé; as you've noted, the sugar is already turned into soft caramel. –  Aaronut Nov 23 '10 at 16:04
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9 Answers 9

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The final word!

After a few hours of experimenting today, this is what I discovered:

  • No "standard" alcohol burns hot enough to caramelize the sugar using a reasonable small amount (i.e. less than 1 tbsp).

  • Since there's an open flame, it will probably eventually caramelize the sugar, but the amount of alcohol required to burn that long makes the straightforward flambé method totally impractical for individual Crème Brûlées (the way that they're supposed to be served). Testing with vanilla pudding as per Michael's suggestion using a very thin layer of sugar on top, even if you drown the entire ramekin in 80-proof alcohol, the sugar will simply dissolve before it caramelizes.

  • roux came up with a very good suggestion in a comment - caramelize the sugar separately and let it harden, then grind it into a powder and flambé that. The only slight problem with this is that it grinds into the consistency of dust almost instantly, and as soon as you pour any alcohol over it, it will dissolve.

So here's how I actually (successfully) did it:

  1. Caramelize the sugar about an hour in advance. Pour off and let it harden. Roux recommended using a silpat but it's perfectly possible to just dump it into a heatproof container. If using a container, then as soon as it hardens, crack it with a knife in 2 or 3 places and let it sit for another 10-15 minutes; the cracks will spread and eventually it will "shatter" into large chunks which are easily removed.

  2. Grind the hardened sugar using a spice grinder. As stated above, it will take on the consistency of confectioner's sugar (beware, it is very dusty, you might want to turn the range fan on while you scoop it out of the spice grinder). Place it in a separate (preferably wide) container.

  3. Over time the ground sugar will actually start to crystallize again, which is why I wrote above to do this about an hour in advance. You're aiming for a consistency that is sticky and somewhat hard but still easy to shape with your hands.

  4. Spread a thin layer of the semi-hard sugar on each Crème Brûlée - not too thin, though, you don't want this to dissolve instantly, so aim for at least a few (2-3) mm. It should be pretty easy to "mold" the sugar into shape.

  5. Heat some cognac or other strong alcohol in a separate saucepan. The amount depends on how many Crème Brûlées you're preparing, but you won't need more than a tablespoon per brûlée. You need to get the alcohol hot if you want it to really burn when lit, but don't let it boil, otherwise it won't ignite. This is standard flambé stuff but I'm putting it here for reference. Personally, I let it heat up until I see a little bit of steam (but before any simmering).

  6. Don't pour the hot alcohol into the Crème Brûlées yet. Instead, take the saucepan off the heat and light the alcohol by itself inside the saucepan. You should probably do this using a barbecue lighter, although I had no trouble using a butane torch. Don't worry, it won't erupt in a massive fireball, but the saucepan will heat up very quickly so you might want to hold it with an oven mitt.

  7. Pour a small amount of the flaming alcohol into each Crème Brûlée, and work quickly otherwise all the alcohol will burn off. It will melt the already-caramelized sugar very quickly.

  8. Allow all of the remaining alcohol to burn off until the flames disappear, then let it cool for at least 5 minutes. Once the sugar begins to harden again, it will form a perfect crust!

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I don't think the flambe will give you the droids crust you are looking for.

The previous restaurant I cooked at, I was doing desserts for a bigshot French chef. One of the desserts involved making a dark caramel, adding an indecent amount of rum, then flambeeing it in the kitchen to lose most of the alcohol. There was no appreciable amount of cooking of the sugar coming from the flames. None.

In addition, you are likely to end up with actually burnt sugar. While it would be cute to translate brulee literally at your dining table, the results will not be good eats.

FEAR NOT GENTLE READER, for I have ideas that may or may not astound, amaze, bore, or inspire you.

You could:

  • as suggested, pour some brandy on top of your crust and flambe that. I would do a test first (amazing idea with the vanilla pudding btw) of course.
  • make your creme with brown sugar instead of white (this may cause an odd colour), and flambe bananas in rum at the table. call it creme brulee Foster.
  • along the same lines, but cook orange zest in your cream while bringing it up to temperature, strain before adding to your egg yolks and flambe orange supremes (blood oranges would be very dramatic) at table, in Cointreau/Triple Sec/Grand Marnier. creme brulee Suzette.
  • serve flaming cocktails with your creme brulee
  • for added insanity, there is a gel that special effects artists use when a body part needs to appear as though it is on fire. you can dip your finger in it in the kitchen, light your finger on fire at the table, and light your flambes that way. OBVIOUSLY only do this if you have practiced and can access the specific chemical (I can't remember what it's called) and have a bowl of ice water handy in case.
  • for even more insanity, magnesium will burn underwater and is available in many kids' science kits. I leave it to your creativity what to do with that. Warning: burning magnesium is intensely bright and can damage retinas.
  • make small individual fruitcakes as a complement to the creme brulee (the texture alone would provide a lovely contrast) and flambe those with brandy
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WAIT. I have it. Sprinkle sugar onto a silpat. Brulee it. Grind it up again and use that for the top of your creme. The flambe should then melt the sugar quickly, and it will re-crust. And look like magic. Just don't use much--maybe a teaspoon? You'll have to experiment. –  daniel Sep 16 '10 at 10:13
    
Don't use much alcohol I mean. –  daniel Sep 16 '10 at 10:13
    
Actually, since I'll be making crème caramels alongside the crème brûlées (easy to do at the same time), I could probably just proceed normally but take the (hardened) caramelized plates out of half the ramekins before pouring in the cream, then grind those as your comment suggests. That should work just as well, right? What will I actually need in order to grind the caramels, you think a spice grinder would work? –  Aaronut Sep 16 '10 at 14:33
    
Also, just out of curiosity, what if the cream itself is made with alcohol, like a chocolate liqueur? Would you expect that to get it to "cook" better or not really? –  Aaronut Sep 16 '10 at 14:34
    
Good luck getting the caramel plates out of the ramekins! Yes a spice grinder will work. And no, adding alcohol to your cremes will not work. The alcohol will either cook off, or it will interrupt the protein matrix created by the egg yolks and they will not set. Either way, bad news bears. –  daniel Sep 16 '10 at 16:38
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I think it is completely possible to make this work. The key is going to be finding the right amount of sugar and alcohol to use. You'll want to determine this in advance, but I assume you don't want to make a bunch of creme brulee to practice on. So here's what you do. Make a bunch of cheap vanilla pudding and use that as a standin in your ramekins for the creme. You can probably use just a 1" layer for the simulation. Please do this and let us know your results, I agree it would be very fun. You should just casually walk in with your tray all set up and light 'em up without saying anything :).

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Brilliant idea with the pudding! It's not going to gelatinize as well as the cream but it should be more than adequate for a little experimentation. And yes, I plan to take the tray in pre-coated, then sweep the torch across it and light up the entire row at once. If it works, it'll be quite a spectacle! –  Aaronut Sep 16 '10 at 0:13
    
Please let us know how it comes out! –  Michael at Herbivoracious Sep 16 '10 at 3:13
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I have done this before and never had a problem. My crèmes are baked in a water bath then cooled all day (at least 6 hours). I then sift fine brown sugar over top, completely covering the crèmes, then broil them closely under broiler (watching constantly) until caramelized (only few minuets); then I top with a couple of teaspoons 180 proof rum and flame. They come out perfect.

The broiling is done just before serving and rum is added while still hot from broiler and immediately flamed. I do the flaming at the table and warn guests to wait a few minuets before sampling. I can do this for dinner party of 6 or less by myself but if there are more guests, I need help.

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I suppose this will produce the same eventual result, but the flambé ends up having no real effect and being entirely for show. Might as well use the torch. In my version and Daniel's, it looks like the sugar is actually being caramelized; like any good trick, there's some cheating going on behind the scenes, but it's pretty convincing nonetheless. –  Aaronut Feb 27 '12 at 1:11
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I had a crème brulee at a restaurant recently to which they set light to brulee it. "When questioned they said there was a culinary gel they used. which they mix with sugar. Once I can find a link to where it can be purchased I will attach a link

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I can see I am WAY late here, but, I'd recommend simply using the torch on a really thin sugar coat in advance. Than, prior to serving, pour alcool on them and flambé. No one will notice/mind the fact that it's not the flambé that actually created the crust. I am French and work in a French restaurant and this is own we do it.

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I've had this at a resturant. The dish was called "Bakewell Brulees" (Bakewell is a town near here famous for its tarts which are almond, cherry affairs).

The dish came with 3 mini brulee, one almond, one cherry and one mixed. They had obviously already poured over armanac or something and proceeded to light at the table. Once the flame went out there was a perfect crust.

so its certainly possible.

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I'd guess there was already a crust under the liquor when they brought it out. –  ceejayoz Sep 16 '10 at 12:07
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I just had an amazing Chocolate Creme Brulee last night with a Grande Marnier flambe which the waiter lit at the table. It was soo good. I think they made a regular Brulee with crust already on it and added the Grande Marnier just before serving it. It was slightly warm, perhaps from the flambe. Would really like to have the recipe for this one. Had it at Amy's in downtown Port Orchard , WA.

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The evaporating alcohol underneath the flame would probably cool the surface instead of caramelize it. This is the same reason you can dip a dollar bill in alcohol and burn it without harming the bill.

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