Creme brûlée is one of the ultimate classic desserts. It has such a reputation of being aaahhh-mazing, and people are always gushing about how wonderful it is. I had never tasted it until sometime during med school, when I was out to dinner with my aunt. When she learned that I had never tried it she insisted we change that then and there. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about it or what to expect, except that it should knock my socks off. Instead, I was underwhelmed. It had been built up so much in my mind that a very eggy custard with burnt sugar was a let down to say the least.
I think that most of that disappointment was simply a matter of inaccurate expectations. The next time I tried it, I knew exactly what to expect and was much more able to enjoy and appreciate it. And by now I’ve had it enough times to declare that yes, I think it’s pretty wonderful indeed. These cupcakes were a recent coworker birthday selection and I was curious to see how well the concept of creme brûlée would handle being cupcake-ified. This approach uses a vanilla pastry cream rather than a classic custard, but combined with the burnt sugar topping, the combination is absolutely spot on. Based on the reviews they received, I think this is a version of creme brûlée that everyone can get on board with, even the haters.
Yield: about 2 dozen cupcakes
For the topping:
- 3 cups whole milk, divided
- ½ cup cornstarch
- ¾ cup sugar
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1 large egg
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (optional)
- 6 tbsp. (3 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- 3 tsp. vanilla extract
For the cupcakes:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup (6 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1½ cups sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1¼ cups buttermilk
- Sugar, for finishing
To make the pastry cream, combine 6 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl and whisk to blend well. Set aside. In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining 2½ cups plus 2 tablespoons of milk with the sugar, salt and vanilla bean. Warm over medium-high heat until the sugar is dissolved. Meanwhile, place the egg and egg yolks in a large liquid measuring cup and whisk lightly. Blend in the cornstarch mixture.
When the milk-sugar mixture just begins to simmer, slowly pour a portion of the warm milk into the measuring cup with the eggs, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. Continue until most of the milk has been mixed in. Return the mixture to the saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then cook until thickened, about 1 minute, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent burning. Remove the pan from the heat, whisk in the butter and vanilla until smooth. Transfer to a bowl or storage container, press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming, and chill thoroughly.
To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line cupcake pans with paper liners. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk to blend. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Blend in the eggs one at a time. Blend in the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add in the dry ingredients in three additions alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients and mixing each addition just until incorporated.
Divide the batter between the prepared liners filling each about half to two thirds full. Bake the cupcakes, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until just set and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to let cool completely.
To assemble the cupcakes, use a small paring knife to cut out a wide cone from the top of the cupcake. Transfer the pastry cream to a pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip (I use Ateco #809). Fill the cones with a generous layer of the pastry cream. (If making in advance, the cupcakes can be covered and refrigerated at this point.) When ready to serve, sprinkle a layer of sugar over the surface of the pastry cream and caramelize to a golden brown with a kitchen torch. Serve immediately.