WHEN creme brulee is made to perfection, eating it is a little like falling into clouds - a satin luxury. The twice-cooked and chilled custard is completed with a caramelized ("brulee" means burnt) sugar topping that cracks like glass when you tap it with a spoon. The contrast of cold custard and hot sugar, of silken versus hard texture, of delicate versus strong flavor, and of dark versus light color sets the unpretentious dessert among the classiest, richest, and most delicious.
So delicious, in fact, that a well-made creme brulee can make a French pastry chef's reputation.
But watch out for bad ones. Says award-winning pastry chef Nancy Silverton of the Campanile Restaurant in Los Angeles, "If you are not a very good chef, you can ruin it. You are talking about only three major ingredients: eggs, heavy cream, and sugar ... and about different flavorings that can be good or can ruin it."
If you don't get it out of the oven in time, it curdles and is "disastrous" to eat, Ms. Silverton continues. "And the sugar on top has to be properly caramelized, not black. It can't be prepared a day ahead."
Lee Napoli at Maison Robert in Boston says, "It is a simple but difficult dessert. It is one of our best sellers. People love it. Unlike a creme caramel, which is just soft when you turn it out, a creme brulee is unique because the thin, hard, crunchy substance makes it so delicious."
It's also light, and "People feel they are being good to themselves when they have a creme brulee rather than a big piece of cake after dinner."
Great pastry chefs who make the delicate custard - invented by a French chef employed by Christ College, Cambridge, in the 18th century - have their own secrets of success. Rebecca Lewis of Santa Cafe in Santa Fe has produced an excellent creme brulee by sheer deduction. The self-taught pastry chef has been in the dough for only five years (and nine years more as a chef). But when she came to Santa Cafe only two years ago, she sampled the creme brulee on the menu and realized it did not fulfill her expec tation.
"I just sat down and I closed my eyes and asked myself what changes I needed to make, and imagined what it should taste like," she says. "I asked myself: What is the dish trying to do with the flavor and texture? Two radically different textures and tastes."
She made some changes: "I needed to add Madagascar vanilla bean; I needed to add more egg yolks; and I needed to change the way I cooked it.... I put the cream, sugar, and vanilla bean in the double boiler over, not in, hot water. I think the trick is knowing exactly when the vanilla bean has infused into the cream and sugar - for me, the key element. It is at that point that it has to come off the stove because otherwise the aroma and essence of the vanilla will cook off."
After pulling the vanilla cream mixture off the heat, she removes the vanilla bean and whisks in the egg yolks abruptly so they don't cook completely.
Then she strains the custard, replaces the vanilla bean, and refrigerates the mixture overnight in a covered container. That will thicken the custard, she says, but only to the point that the flavors have had a chance to meld thoroughly.
Refrigerator time at this point, Lewis insists, is essential, since it helps create the smooth texture. Texture is part of the taste.
The next day, after straining again, she whisks the pre-custard again, then pours it into individual, oven-proof cups. The custard is then baked in a bain marie (water bath), covered carefully with foil so that no steam from the bain marie can escape. The steam keeps the dessert from forming a dry layer on top, as with a plain baked custard. The custard is then chilled again until it is very cold.
When it is time to serve, it is removed from the refrigerator and a thin layer of white sugar is evenly sprinkled on top. The professional chef uses a salamander or torch to caramelize the thin layer of sugar. But the chilled brulee may be put under a broiler for a few seconds to caramelize the sugar.
Nancy Silverton says you should be able to crack through the thin sheet of caramelized sugar. "There should be a real difference between the soft cream underneath and the slick sugar - which is there for taste and texture.
"I think the secret of a great creme brulee is that the custard is perfectly set - just set, so that it is not rubbery. For me, that custard part should be well chilled and the burnt sugar should be a very thin layer that shatters when you tap it with a spoon. Then, too, the sugar should be uniformly caramelized."
WHEN it comes to flavoring, chefs may differ. Both Lewis and Silverton like vanilla best. But while Lewis adamantly prefers Madagascar bean, Silverton prefers Tahitian. In either case, "The vanilla bean should be plump, pliable, and aromatic," says Silverton. She has also used ginger, orange, and mint.
Creme brulee is one of Ms. Napoli's favorite desserts - one she serves to her own dinner guests. And naturally she has her own secret. "A little lemon zest in the custard is very nice. Most recipes don't have that and it gives it a nice little kick. I do put a pinch of vanilla in there, but you pick up the lemon more. The combination is very good."
All three chefs remark about what good sellers these desserts are. Silverton doesn't make it anymore at Campanile because so many Los Angeles restaurants now serve it. But at Santa Cafe, customers have learned to ask for the custard before they order their meals, lest the kitchen run out.
During the summer tourist season, Lewis makes double batches, but they always sell out. It is likewise a best seller at Maison Robert.
"You're surprised that something that simple can taste so good," says Silverton.
"There's a sense of comfort in a great creme brulee," says Lewis. "It's like wrapping up in your favorite afghan on the couch - cozy."