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Crisp and smooth: building the best of creme brulees

Mike Larkin and Maia Chavez

Restaurants set themselves apart from the crowd by focusing on different regional cuisines and flavors. Breads may be different. Base ingredients will reflect the geographic region being mimicked. Meats or cheeses will be chosen for their authenticity. But if you had to find one common denominator, it would probably be the very basic French concoction of creme brulee. “Basically, you have five categories of dessert,” says Balata’s chef Mike Joersz. “Something chocolate, an ice cream dessert, a cheesecake, a fresh fruit thing and a creme brulee. It’s so tired, it’s chic. It’s a classic, and everybody has their own version.”For Joersz, brulee provides a potential palate of flavors to play with.”Purists will say I’ve bastardized it,” he says. “But, at least for me, it’s a couple of interesting bites of different flavors.”Joersz is currently serving a trio of brulees in flavors of pomegranate, mango and banana. His winter trio includes pumpkin, lavendar and sage (Balata: 477-5353).For those wishing to create their own, resources are far from scant. There are 28,500 recipes for creme brulee listed on Google.com, but they all boil down to slight variations of the following (and you should play around with this outline to make it your own):– equal parts egg yolks to cream– sugar to taste– a pinch of salt– vanilla (though the traditional french recipe did not include vanilla, and many restaurants play around with other flavors in the custard: esspresso, liquours, fresh fruits)In a double-boiler bring your eggyolk and cream batter up to temperature and add sugar, salt and vanilla.Pour this liquid into shallow ramikins, preferably no more than an inch deep, and place ramikins into a cookie sheet or roasting pan. Pour water into the pan until it comes at least 34 of the way up the sides of the ramikins. Place in an oven at a low temperature and cook until the custard begins to firm up. Low temperatures for a longer time generally work better:– 250 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour– or 300 degrees for 30-45 nimutesAny higher than 300 and you run the risk of cooking the tops of your brulee into very sweet scrambled eggs.Once they begin to solidify you can pull them from the oven and allow them to cool and set into a velvety smooth and creamy dessert.But brulee is not really brulee until you get to the pyrotechnical part. Ryan Rambin, executive chef at Edwards’ new hotspot Ray’s (926-7480), offers up a few of his secrets to the delicate art of carmelizing the perfect sugar crust.”I use raw sugar,” says Rambin. “It tends to burn a little nicer. And I use a butane torch. The Torch doesn’t have to be screamin’ – use a slower stream, and just kind of sway it back and forth so the sugar carmelizes and melts evenly.”Rambin recommends holding the flame an inch or two above the sugar so as not to scorch, and keeping the flame in a steady, easy motion. While Rambin says creme brulee is one of the easier desserts to cook at altitude, he recommends adding an extra egg yolk to the custard if necessary. Ray’s bakes their custard at about 250 degrees, he says. “If you cook it too hot, and there’s not enough water in your water bath, See Brulee, page B6the pan will heat up and heat up the cups,” Rambin says. “It can kind of boil the custard a little and curdle it, and you don’t want that. You want a really silky-smooth custard.”Angilee Aurillo of The French Press (926-4740) is currently serving up her summer brulee of Grand Marnier with Caramelized Oranges. “I like the light, summery orange flavor,” she says. Aurillo, who just returned from a five-week cooking stint in Normandy, learned her dry-bake method of cooking creme brulee from a collegue in France and says she was surprised do see how well it worked. “At one-and-a-half inches thick, in a flat custard dish, you don’t really need to use a Bain Marie,” says Aurillo, who dry-bakes her custard at 300 degrees for thirty minutes. Trained in Europe, Aurillo has cooked in Italy, and returns to Europe on a regular basis to hone her skills and pick up new tricks of the trade. In the winter, Aurillo favors a Maple Brulee cooked off in coffee cups, using a water bath to compensate for the thicker custard. Each brulee has its own character, and many of the Vail Valley’s restaurants offer some variation on the theme. Chap’s Gill & Chophouse in Vail’s Cascade Resort (479-7014) offers different flavors depending on the day. traMonti’s Peter Carl makes a Meyer lemon creme brulee set off with a lemon butter bookie (949-5552). La Tour’s Paul D. Ferzacca gives up his recipe for a creme brulee flambe with Grand Marnier macerated berries in his segment of the “Flavors of Vail” cookbook (available at local bookstores and kitchen shops, or call La Tour at 476-4403).Vail Valley Epicure is a weekly column following the events and changes in the local restaurant scene. If you are changing your menu, on the forefront of a new culinary trend or introducing a new chef please drop us a line at maiachavez@aol.com or 376-1811.


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