Few desserts will impress a Valentine’s date like a homemade crème brûlée. With its rich custard base, creamy vanilla flavoring, and caramelized-sugar top, it’s one of the most recognized classic desserts available in higher-end restaurants. And according to chef Brian Mason of BL Bistro, crème brûlée is actually not that difficult to prepare. Shhh. We won’t tell.)
But first: a warning. “It’s one of the more simple dishes to make, but it’s also one of the easiest dishes to mess up,” says Mason. “You just have to make sure you follow all the steps and take your time. It’s a delicate thing. Mess up one step, and it will mess up your final product.” In this photographic tutorial, Mason carefully displays the preparation of a restaurant-quality crème brûlée. Follow closely, and a successful Valentine’s Day is guaranteed to result.
1 quart heavy cream 1 vanilla bean 1 cup sugar 6 egg yolks
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Slice lengthwise down vanilla bean and scrape out vanilla caviar.
Bring cream, vanilla bean, and caviar to boil in medium saucepan. Remove from heat, and using strainer, remove vanilla bean and caviar. Cover and let sit 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk ½ cup sugar and egg yolks together.
Important: make sure you whisk until mixed well and not grainy.
You’ll know you’ve blended well when the color lightens. If you stop whisking prematurely, crème brûlée will be grainy after you cook it.
Slowly incorporate cream and egg-yolk mixture (you don’t want the egg yolks to cook), whisking to combine.
Pour into 6 to 8 oven-proof ramekins.
Place ramekins in large roasting pan filled halfway with water. It is essential for the water to rest at the half-way mark on the ramekins.
Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until middles are firm but still jiggle when shaken. Remove from oven and place in refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours to set. At this stage, it’s essential to cool crème brûlée sufficiently so the sugar topping won’t melt into the crème.
Finish by dividing remaining ½ cup sugar equally between crème brûlées – sprinkle sugar evenly over top of each one.
Use cooking torch to caramelize sugar completely. Carefully rotate ramekin (watch your fingers!) while torching to avoid burning the sugar. If you go too far and the sugar does burn, scrape the top layer off, chill crème brûlée briefly, and begin again. Garnish with your favorite fruit.
Modify this recipe by adding your favorite liquor for extra flavor – coffee, chocolate, etc. Simply add 1 tablespoon to the cream before filling the ramekins. If you’ve got children and don’t want the alcohol to remain, add the liquor during the cooking process to burn off the alcohol, leaving only the flavoring.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Meet the Cook: Brian Mason, of BL Bistro
Brian Mason’s introduction to professional kitchens came with his first job. He began working at Kabuki Romanza Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar when he was 15. “A lot of my mentors were Asian,” he says today during a break on a busy afternoon at BL Bistro. “I learned that food is more of an art process than anything else. You want it to look good and taste good.”
Upon graduating from Caprock High School, Brian attended college in Dallas, where he began studying for an unrelated career. To pay the bills, he found himself getting drawn back toward Asian cuisine, working in a high-end Asian establishment. The restaurant world continued to fascinate him. By the time the year 2000 came around, Mason had gotten married, returned to Amarillo, and made plans to open his own restaurant with his then wife, Lizzie.
The couple opened BL Bistro in August of that year. Though now divorced, they remain business partners today. “We wanted to do something a little different in Amarillo,” he says. In those early days, the eclectic restaurant had a Greek emphasis. “But we’ve kind of evolved over the years into a steak and seafood restaurant.”
Mason’s focus evolved, too. In 2003, he returned to his Japanese roots by opening Zen 721, an Asian-fusion restaurant on Polk Street in downtown Amarillo. In 2008, he partnered with Brian Singleton and Bo Salling to open Crush Wine Bar & Deli, also on Polk. During that decade, the downtown area was not quite as active as today, and Mason realized his two Polk Street endeavors were competing for the same business. He let go of both, selling his shares in order to focus on BL Bistro, which had developed a passionate clientele and was thriving.
However, Mason is diversifying again this year as he prepares to launch a new restaurant concept: Prime Chophouse and Lounge, located in Town Square Village. With plans to open this summer, the chophouse will feature Prime USDA dry-aged natural beef and fresh seafood in an upscale setting Mason likens to steakhouses in New York and Chicago. “We’ll serve higher-end cuts of beef with more flavor,” he says. He also plans to use locally sourced produce and is excited about partnering with West Texas cattle breeders on the beef.
In the meantime, he continues to please BL Bistro patrons with delectable desserts like this issue’s crème brûlée. While he says most people prefer the dish’s classic French vanilla flavoring, crème brûlée is perfect for experimenting with variations. “There are a lot of options by adding different liqueurs to give it different flavors,” he says. To the custard base, he explains, you can add anything from Kahlua to apple brandy to red wine. The result? A more exotic-tasting version of the same easy-to-prepare crème brûlée.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.