The name is French, but the recipe's origin is British. Creme brulee , also known as burnt cream, is a rich custard topped with a layer of crisp caramel. It is said to have first been served at Trinity College, Cambridge.
As is true of many classics, variations of the recipe abound. There are also at least three methods for caramelizing the sugar topping. This process needs to be done quickly so the custard beneath remains cold and creamy.
Prepare the custard ahead and refrigerate several hours or overnight. To finish, sprinkle a thin layer of superfine granulated sugar over the custard surface (Step 1).
Most cookbooks suggest caramelizing the sugar under a broiler. Position the desserts as close as possible to the heating element and watch carefully so that the sugar browns but doesn't burn. Placing the ramekins on a bed of ice (Step 2) helps keep the custard chilled.
An alternative is to use a salamander. On the professional ranges used in restaurants, the name salamander refers to a specialized oven for browning the tops of foods. The original salamander, however, is a tool that can be used in any kitchen.
The business end of it is a heavy iron head that is heated over a gas burner, then passed closely over the sugar (Step 3), caramelizing it in seconds. The long shaft and wooden handle protect the cook's hand, but this tool needs to be used with care.
Even more caution must be exercised when employing a method of caramelizing the sugar used by many professional chefs--a propane torch. Be certain the creme brulee is placed on a heat-proof surface. Carefully light the torch according to the manufacturer's directions, then pass the flame quickly back and forth over the surface of the creme brulee until the sugar browns (Step 4).
Taste panelists in The Times Test Kitchen gave the highest rating for flavor to the crust produced by the salamander tool--it tasted like toasted marshmallows. The propane torch was judged best for speed.
Note: Salamanders may be purchased at Cook 'N' Things, 606 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena, (818) 441-5588 and Montana Mercantile, 1500 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (213) 451-1418. Propane torches are available at hardware stores.