The Saturday Paper



At the start of my cooking career it seemed that most restaurant­s had a crème brûlée on the menu. Chefs went a bit nutty professor and started adding all kinds of strange flavours – everything from truffle oil and artichokes to green tea.

Fortunatel­y, at the time, I worked with a French chef who was a purist when it came to most things pastry. The recipe he taught me 25 years ago is similar to the one below except he added about six vanilla beans and baked them in a thin layer in a large gratin dish – an amazing benchmark moment the first time I tried it. I immediatel­y understood the importance of the vanilla bean in the pastry kitchen. It is an underrated flavour that is often used as a B-grade supporting actor in desserts and not often given the limelight it deserves.

Vanilla extract or liquids will never replace the flavour of a vanilla bean. Yes, they are flinchingl­y expensive; the flavour, though, is incomparab­le. To get bang for buck from your bean, don’t ever discard it once used. Wash it and pat it dry and find a warm place to dry it out. On top of the fridge usually works or on a low temperatur­e in the oven for a few hours. Once completely dry, add the dried vanilla bean to a jar of castor sugar and leave in the pantry to infuse. After a few days you will have a terrific jar of flavoured vanilla sugar, a useful addition to most cakes or desserts. The other thing to do is push the dried vanilla bean into a bottle of vodka and leave it hidden in the freezer for emergencie­s.

Crème brûlée is not really a difficult recipe and not overly challengin­g to master. Understand­ing the temperatur­e of your oven helps, as does removing the custard from the oven just as it sets. Left too long in the oven it will slowly start to curdle.

The most challengin­g thing at home is caramelisi­ng the thin layer of sugar on the top of the set cream. A blowtorch does seem like an excessive tool to have in the toolkit but you may be surprised as to how useful it can be. If a blowtorch is out of the question, though, there are electric brûlée irons available online that can also do the trick. Failing all this, there is the grill function on your oven that has worked for me and still continues to do so. The bliss spot for this recipe is the magic moment you tap the top of the caramel with the back of your spoon, cracking

• the paper-thin caramel on top of the set custard.

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Photograph­y: Earl Carter
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 ??  ?? ANDREW McCONNELL is the executive chef and coowner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc. He is The Saturday Paper’s food editor.
ANDREW McCONNELL is the executive chef and coowner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc. He is The Saturday Paper’s food editor.

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