The year was 1991. I was in Paris (for the first time) all alone to take part of a workshop to launch the sequencing of the genome of Mycobacterium leprae. In those days sequencing the full genome of any organism was a daunting task, and I was thrilled to be a tiny part of that initial effort. I had two free weekends to explore the city. One sunny Saturday I walked for about 6 hours with a stop for lunch in a small bistrot. I asked for a gratin dauphinoise. Halfway through lunch, I bit into something very hard. It was a piece of broken glass that somehow found its way into the gratin! My French was rudimentary, but I felt I needed to inform the waitress because someone could get hurt from it. I did my best to communicate, and was absolutely non-confrontational. It is actually very hard to be confrontational if you are not fluent in a language, did you know that? Also impossible to tell a joke, so do not try that in French until you can read Proust without the help of a dictionary. 😉
The waitress was livid! She profusely apologized, offered to bring me another meal, but I told it was not necessary. She then said a bunch of things too quickly for me to comprehend, ended with a question that I also could not quite get, so I just smiled. I thought she was going to bring me the check and call it a day, but instead she came back with the owner of the bistrot, who asked if I had ever had crème brûlée. Crème quoi???? She opened a huge smile, went back to the kitchen, and returned with a tray. On the tray, a small dish, a bowl of sugar, and…. a blow torch! She caramelized the sugar right in front of me, filling the room with that unique aroma, and handing me the best dessert I had ever tasted in my 31 years of life! Unforgettable! And, they did not let me pay a single franc for anything!
Crème brûlée became my favorite dessert, I tried it at every opportunity since then, but they never quite matched my first encounter. There was something about hitting the exact proportion of sugar crust to the smooth custard underneath, or maybe it was just the full experience, the fear of speaking up about the glass in my food, and the unexpected reward… Who knows?
My version joins the French classic of my past with a Canadian-American flavor I’m quite fond of: maple syrup.
MAPLE CRÈME BRÛLÉE
(inspired by a recipe from Jacques Torres)
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 vanilla bean
1 whole egg
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
7 tablespoons maple syrup
Turbinado sugar to caramelize the top
Scald the cream by heating it until bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat.In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the whole egg, egg yolks, maple syrup and sugar until well blended. Continue to whisk while slowly pouring the hot cream into the egg mixture and whisk until the mixture is smooth and homogenous in color. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the vanilla bean pieces and any pieces of cooked egg.
Add the custard to ramekins filling them almost to the top. Bake in the heated oven inside a large baking pan with hot water coming up halfway up the sides of the molds. Bake for approximately 40 minutes. Check after 35 minutes, the custard should tremble slightly when shaken, forming a little wave in the center of the ramekin, but not on the edges.Remove the molds from the water bath and place on a cooling rack for 30 minutes. Then refrigerate for 2 hours (or for to 3 days) before serving.
At serving time, sprinkle each custard homogeneously with turbinado (or demerara) sugar, and caramelize with a torch. Alternatively, you can broil the surface, but be very careful not to melt the custard underneath the sugar crust. You can serve right away or refrigerate again.
to print the recipe, click here
Paris will always be my home away from home…