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Recipe: chocolate espresso crème brûlée

I got up before sunrise and tip-toed around the house this morning. We dipped below freezing overnight. Sticking my nose to the open window, I took several shallow sniffs then one deep inhale. No smoke. Scanning to the east I saw clear skies. The absolute best news? Calm winds. This in contrast to yesterday morning’s hostile 60 mph gusts that slapped our aspens around like rag dolls, ripping leaves off the branches. We found some wood siding from our house had been torn off by the winds as well. At noon, Manisha emailed to ask if we were all right. There was a fire near Boulder Canyon.

It’s September. In parts of the American West, this is synonymous with fire season: the driest (we had 4% humidity yesterday) and sometimes hottest time of year. Toss strong winds and bone dry vegetation in, and you are primed for a fire. We are no strangers to fire season having lived at the boundary of the Angeles National Forest in Southern California. The price one pays to live in Awesome. I hopped on Twitter and the stream of information was flowing fast. Boulder is a good place to be on Twitter. Those crazy winds whipped the wildfire into a nightmare starting in Four-Mile Canyon. It quickly spread in almost all directions and we followed news of evacuations and road closures. Good citizens updated maps in real-time or tweeted updates from the police scanner. When the reverse 911 system failed, authorities asked people on Twitter spread the word that they were going door to door to evacuate.

Smaller fires popped up around the area, but were quickly put out. It was the big one, now called the Emerson Gulch Fire, that was consuming homes and whole neighborhoods. If you look at the satellite imagery of the area, the houses are not next door to each other – they are scattered about, in the woods and canyons/mountains. It’s rough and rugged terrain (people are not on municipal services there – they have giant propane tanks for heating… which explode in wildfires). If someone dropped you into that scenario where several fronts are threatened, how do you go about deciding what to save, what to defend? It’s heartbreaking. That firestorm was so bad, the only thing authorities could focus on was evacuation. Photographs, video, descriptions and links to more information poured in on the hashtag #boulderfire. We watched as the evacuation zone expanded, inching closer to our home.

smoke from the fire was the only cloud in all of colorado (taken at dusk looking east)

When the zone was within 6 miles of our house and authorities closed Boulder Canyon, we began to gather our things. Things are just things. As I packed up letters from and photos of my sister, I realized that the only “things” I could not do without are Jeremy and Kaweah. The rest – even those cherished items that I had of Kris – I could let go of. But while we had the time, we packed what we might need if we had to evacuate and if ultimately the house was lost. [For those of you with an invested digital existence, it’s a handy thing to have an external drive (updated daily) to unplug and grab.] Without a doubt, my mind turned to Ivory Hut who just last week lost all of her worldly possessions to a fire. Thankfully, the winds had calmed considerably since the morning and tankers were finally able to fly in the waning light before nightfall grounded them.

the plume of smoke rising into the evening sky

By last night, the evacuation zone had extended again – to within 2 miles of our home. Evac zone and fire are not the same things, mind you, but we were ready. Here is an incredible time-lapse shot from Flagstaff Mountain last night. Right now Boulder lies choking under a blanket of smoke from the fire. I’m trying to reconcile those images with the clear, sunny day we are experiencing just west of the fire. Our hope is for containment. Thank you for all of your concerned and caring tweets, FB messages and comments, and emails. We are sending good juju to the victims of the fire and the incredible rescue, firefighting, and relief personnel.

Life goes on. My dear friend, Andrew, is leaving today to travel the world for a year, or two, or six. Boulder will miss you, Andrew. We will miss you. Thanks for spending an evening with us on Sunday. Thanks for being such a Force of Good in the community. Safe and remarkable travels, friend. Come back to us any time.

andrew on the terrace at the flagstaff house

perusing the wine list (the guys got cocktails instead)

crab- and salmon-stuffed squash blossoms with caviar (zomgdelicious!)

Well now, there is a recipe after all. This one dates back to my pre-blog days when I had a static website. I have a little sticky note (the virtual kind, not a paper sticky) on my desktop telling me to transfer some of those old recipes over. I think it might be one of Jeremy’s favorites.

chocolate, of course

espresso powder and cream

Chocolate espresso crème brûlée. The chocolate and espresso are enough to win most folks over, but crème brûlée will surely round up the rest of the holdouts. Crème brûlée is one of the more annoying things to have to type out, so I’m glad the fabulosity of the dessert itself far outweighs any inconvenience experienced in writing about it.

add chopped chocolate to the hot cream

whisking egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla

Crème brûlée is quite simple to make, although some of the aspects can be a little daunting if you aren’t used to water baths or wielding propane torches. Totally worth the trouble, especially when you tap through the golden layer of caramelized sugar and dive into the creamy custard beneath. People swoon when you utter the words “crème brûlée” for a reason.

combine chocolate cream and egg mixtures

after straining, pour into ramekins

I discuss my water bath technique in the recipe, but I find it helps to boil my water in a kettle and then pour it into the roasting pan when the pan is on the oven rack rather than to fill the pan and try placing it in the oven. I’ve had water slosh out onto me, the oven, and into the ramekins. Not fun at all. I don’t recommend it. Blerg! However, when you pour the water into the pan, aim the flow away from the ramekins because it can well up against the ramekin and flow over and into your custard… which kinda sucks.

carefully pouring water into the roasting pan

after baked and cooled, sprinkle with sugar

When you bake crème brûlée, the center should still be jiggly as you take it out of the oven. If you bake until the custard is firm, it will be too dry and won’t have that lovely creamy texture. So typically I insert a knife into the center and make sure nothing is sticking, but I try to preserve that center jiggle. Let the custards cool in the water bath. This takes some time, so don’t be rushing anything. Once cooled, you can refrigerate them for up to 2 days or serve them immediately. I like mine chilled for a couple of hours. Sprinkle some sugar on top and torch it or broil it. Because the custard is dark in color, it’s hard to tell when the sugar has turned that signature caramel color. If you can’t tell, just make sure the sugar melts and bubbles for a bit.

requires adult supervision

a squirt of whipped cream and a chocolate-covered espresso bean to serve

Dinner guests’ faces light up when you utter the words “crème brûlée”, but their looks of anticipation after watching the sugar melt under a bright blue propane-powered flame and the way their eyes close as they take their first spoonful is priceless. Crème brûlée can be made ahead of time (except for torching the sugar, you have to do that before you serve) which makes it a great dessert for entertaining.

the ever-satisfying crack of the caramelized sugar

Chocolate Espresso Crème Brûlée
[print recipe]
from Elegantly Easy Crème Brûlée and Other Custard Desserts by Debbie Puente

2 cups heavy cream
1 tbsp instant espresso powder
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 egg yolks
3 tbsps sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar (for topping)
chocolate-covered espresso beans for garnish

Oven 300°F. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and espresso powder to a simmer. Whisk to help dissolve the espresso granules. Remove from heat and add the chocolate while the cream is still hot. Mix until smooth and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla together. Slowly add the chocolate mixture to the egg mixture, whisking to combine. Strain through a sieve. Ladle the custard into six cups (custard cups, tea cups, ramekins, you name it) and place in a water bath. What I do is boil water in a kettle and when the oven is ready, I set my roasting pan with custard-filled ramekins on the oven rack and carefully pour the hot water into the pan. Take care not to let the water splash up and into the custard (I’ve done that) or spill it all over the oven (I’ve done that too) or splash it out of the pan when you push the rack back into the oven (done that) or burn your hand on any part of the oven when pouring the hot water (again, me). Bake until the custard is set, but still jiggly in the middle. This takes about 40 to 50 minutes (50 minutes for me). Remove the pan from the oven and let the custards cool IN THE WATER BATH. Remove from water bath and refrigerate for at least two hours (you could serve warm, I suppose). Before serving, sprinkle a couple of teaspoons of sugar over each custard and either torch it with a propane torch (those little mini torches don’t work for us at our elevation) or place it under the broiler until the sugar bubbles and caramelizes. I use a medium propane torch from the hardware store. It cost less than those mini torches and I get more oomph. [Note to self: torch on low output at 8500 ft. or it sputters itself out.] Garnish with whipped cream and a chocolate-covered espresso bean. Serves 6.

53 nibbles at “burning”

  1. Lori @ RecipeGirl says:

    A few years ago, pretty much the entire county of San Diego was on fire. We went to bed one night w/ the fire 30 miles away from us, but the winds were fierce and we got the call to evacuate at about 5:30am. We grabbed everything we could and threw it in the two cars– mostly just photo albums and financial stuff and clothes. Thankfully, all was fine… and we returned to an ash-covered home w/ trees down in the yard. It was all pretty crazy- many, many people lost their homes. Fall is such a scary season for fires.

    Anyhoo, your creme brulee looks fab. Just got one of those torches and creme brulee is on the list of things to make w/ it.

  2. Amy says:

    Like Lori above, I just got one of those torches and this is on my list to make — looks fabulous, Jen. Been thinking of you and Jeremy and Kaweah as I hear news of the fire and hoping all is okay. Hugs from us in Ithaca…

  3. Asha@FSK says:

    Thank God the fire has been contained and you guys are ok! I have been to Boulder and I love it’s beauty. It’s sad that some of it burns every year! :( Nevertheless, we hope for the best I guess…Take Care and hope the threat passed away quietly…

  4. Megan (Hungry Little Blackbird) says:

    Thank goodness the scare has lifted somewhat. I have only had creme brulee a handful of times, and each time I do, I amin heaven. Are the hand torches major investments? Do you find you get much use out of them during the year? Thanks so much for the wonderful post and good luck through the rest of September!!!

  5. SallyBR says:

    I thought of you while watching the news – scary indeed

    We just moved to Los Angeles and people were showing us the regions of the mountains that were catching fire, it must be THE most stressful thing ever! I’d take a tornado any day!

    hang in there, I hope it will all be back to normal soon

  6. Manisha says:

    All the more reason for you to evacuate immediately to the flats with several bowls of crème brûlée (sheesh! Who types that? I copy-paste it!)

    The kids are going to be cooped up indoors with air-intake turned off. No outdoor recess or outdoor PE. I’m not sure which is worse: allow them to breathe in the smoke or get real cosy with the virus that is breezing through the school currently.

    This needs to end. Over 7000 acres burned? :-(

  7. Bri says:

    Glad to hear you’re all ok. Thanks for the new creme brulee recipe, I’ll have to make that sometime! I’m already known for making the vanilla variety, the chocolate will be a nice expansion of my repertoire.

  8. Kristin says:

    Glad all is well with you, & am thinking about those for whom it isn’t.

  9. Joy says:

    I admire you pics so much. This dish just looks heavenly.

  10. Judy says:

    I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how close the fire actually was to you. We know all about fires here in the Santa Barbara-Ventura area. Glad to read that you are ok for the moment. Hope they contain the fire as quickly as possible.

    We love creme brulee, and your chocolate version looks fabulous. Thanks!

  11. Dianne says:

    Wildfires are terrifying. My in-laws lost their home in a fire years ago; their lives were never the same. I hope you remain safe. Creme brulee is my all time favorite sweet. I have always been a purist and have been reluctant to try anything but traditional creme brulee. I believed you have changed my mind. Your’s looks awesome! Can’t wait to try it.

  12. Helene says:

    On the other side of the country, we are ready for hurricanes and floods. Every summer, the kit is revised and updated, maps too. Our flood/fire proof box with the important papers is at the ready. I always get so concerned for the pups though now that Tippy is aging and not really *getting* certain things happening around him at the same pace.
    The shots you took were beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.
    Andrew will be missed for sure by the whole community :)
    Stay safe and thanks for all the updates – I really went to bed worried and your twitter stream was the first one I went to read. I am glad to hear things are ok for you guys.

  13. Bridget says:

    Ugh, I hope they contain the fire soon. My parents got evacuated from their cabin in Vallecito about ten years ago. When they came back, the two houses closest to theirs had burned down, but theirs was safe. So scary.

    Cooks Illustrated has a trick with creme brulee that I really like – after torching it, they chill it again for half an hour or so. It isn’t long enough for the topping to little its brittleness, but it rechills it so that the top isn’t warm from the torch.

  14. Meg says:

    I was living in LA during that big San Diego fire and know so many people who were affected by the huge fire on the front of the Angeles last year at this time. Wildfires are no fun. Glad to hear that you are safe and sound for now. I hope it stays that way! I knew you lived up that way, Jen, but I wasn’t sure how far west you are. Sending so many safe thoughts to everyone involved.

  15. Trish says:

    Brian Williams is on in the background, and I think he just said that the fire has doubled in size. Hope you all are safe.

  16. Mary says:

    I am so glad to hear that you and your family and your home are safe. I used to live in Colorado, so I check your blog nearly every day to get a breath of fresh mountain air! Thank you for being such a great blogger – updating regularly and with such wonderful entries – it is always fun to see your photographs and to read your recipes. In fact, I am going to make a note of this yummy dessert recipe and take it with me to Montana next week for our family vacation – I think everyone will love it! Stay safe!

  17. Kim says:

    Be safe, Jen, be safe.

  18. Kim says:

    I discovered your blog about a month ago when I suddenly needed to learn a little more about baking at high altitude. I’m down in boulder, and have been listening to the water tankers fly over head (Finally!). I hope the fire doesn’t end up your way, and the people who have already lost their homes are in my thoughts.

  19. Jessica says:

    I have been avidly watching the reports about the fire. So glad to hear more of my Colorado bloggers are all right!!
    Also, just have to say…I am extremely jealous of that colder weather! It’s still in the 90’s here during the day and high 70’s at night!

  20. Wei-Wei says:

    I thank god that I don’t live in an area where fires could be imminent. They’re so scary… I’m glad that you’re still okay. And making creme brulee. It’s such a scary dessert to tackle (burning sugar… so scary!) but I don’t have a kitchen torch… Hmm. A match? Heh. Never mind.

  21. Lori says:

    I love your moxy Jen!

  22. David says:

    Been a while since we have corresponded, but very glad to see that you are OK. The news reports are still saying zero per cent containment. Hopes and prayers that you and your family come through unscathed.

  23. Shoshanna says:

    YUM! I <3 Cream Brulee.

    Hope you guys are all doing okay with the fires. The air quality must be pretty poor…hope all turns out well!

  24. Sally - My Custard Pie says:

    It’s strange how you become involved in someone’s life from reading their blog even though you’ve never met and are on opposite sides of the world – but I was concerned when I saw yesterday’s tweets and glad you’re ok. Your account of the fire and this recipe is one of the most compelling posts I have read. Thank you for sharing.

  25. hogie says:

    I can’t say I’ve made crème brûlée too many times, but we here’s our solution to the water problem;
    Before doing anything else, place the ramekins into the pan and fill to the desired height (we chose to do this on our pulled our cooking rack for the same reasons you mentioned). We then removed the ramekins, which allowed us to wipe them out should any water have splashed in. We then put the water into the oven to preheat with the oven. Once the mixture is made and in the ramekins, you just need to place them into the water, which should be warmed and to the correct height! Hope that helps! Stay safe out there.

  26. Ruth Ann says:

    I’m glad that you Jeremy and Kaweah are safe. I followed your twitter stream and am glad all worked out for you.
    I was thinking today about your post a few weeks ago when that climber fell and the Fire/Rescue workers came to help. The Boulder Co. firefighters have come through again. I really believe that we should all send a little thank you to our local fire fighters from time to time as they do an amazing job in difficult circumstances.
    I also thought of Ivory Hut who lost her home last week. It was really great to see the food blogger community rally for her.
    Good idea on the external hard drive for back ups that are portable. I need to remember to back up mine.
    Stay safe.

  27. Nan says:

    Please keep your ear to the ground and to the tweets. Be safe above all else. We were once in a fast moving forest fire in Utah — not much fun when fire is all around. Pretty scary stuff bottom line.

    Make chocolate creme brulee every Christmas dinner. It’s nice to make something ahead knowing the guests will find it so spectacular when served!

    Be safe…

  28. Jen says:

    Glad you are safe, I hope it stays that way – I currently reside in Christchurch, New Zealand and we’re dealing with aftershocks and clean up from a fairly massive earthquake so I can understand how you felt packing an evac kit – it’s funny the things that seem so important when you know your loved ones are safe and sound, and yet how unimportant they seem when there is potential threat to said loved ones.

    Either way that brulee looks bloody marvelous and potentially exactly what is required for frazzled nerves in my household. Thank you for bringing a smile to my otherwise frazzled self.

  29. farmerpam says:

    Sending good thoughts to Boulder.

  30. Sil says:

    Wish I could only send you a little of Buenos Aires humidity….
    Be safe!

  31. Bing Chou says:

    While the wildfire is heartbreaking, it makes me very, very proud to be part of a community that invites those displaced by to dine for free in so many local restaurants. The information sharing and participation by ordinary citizens is a reflection of what this community is all about.

  32. Eileen says:

    hope you and your family and neighbors are safe!!

  33. Paula says:

    I love this second shoot!

  34. Maria says:

    I’m glad to hear you guys are ok. I live in Boulder and go to CU and it’s made me really sad to wake up these past two mornings to the smell of smoke. My heart goes out to you and your family as well as everyone affected by this. Stay safe.

  35. joudie's Mood Food says:

    The pictures are wonderful. How gorgeous your scenery is. As for this coffee chocolate dessert, i think it fits perfectly with the mood and scenery. It is something that i think i would absolutely love! Beautiful!

  36. Hailey says:

    Jen — I’ve been thinking about you. It’s raining here in Eastern Idaho — I will do my best to send this wet weather your way. Hang in there.

  37. naomi says:

    Thankfully you are safe. I’m love the recipe and the shots of the smoke filled sky is ominiously beautiful.

  38. Kristine says:

    ooh, crème brûlée! Yum! Love the “plain” original vanilla one, but will definitely give your recipe a try!

  39. Keith says:

    Glad you’re safe. We’re your neighbors just to the South in Superior, CO, who coincidentally also moved here from Southern Cal a couple years ago. Love the creme brulee recipe. I’m going to try replicating it using my company’s creme brulee mix (Inspired Cuisine brand), as well.

  40. Lucie says:

    I have never lived in an area plagued by fires, but I can only imagine how stressful it can get. I’m hoping the amazing creme brulée helps take your mind off the fires, at least for a quick minute:)

  41. charlene says:

    I love creme brulee and I think I will love more with chocolate and coffee. Great post.

  42. Susan says:

    I, too, lived near San Diego during fires of 2008 and couldn’t believe the widespread devastation…and how we in Temecula were affected by smoke when we were relatively far from the fires. I hope CO doesn’t suffer through anymore of this horrible tragedy.
    Chocolate Brulee….mmmm. I gave up coffee and took up Chai, but think I’d still like cofffe in a dessert. Wondering about Chai brulee now….hmmmmm

  43. jenyu says:

    Thank you all for the concerns and well-wishes. You’re very very sweet. Fire is the reality you live with when you chose mountain life. We are so fortunate to have such excellent rescue and fire-fighting personnel in our state. VERY FORTUNATE. This community is unbelievably deep and generous. We are fine, but if you want to help some of the folks who lost their homes (including some of the brave and selfless firefighters who lost their own homes), please go to this page on the Fourmile Fire for how to help those in need. Thank you. xo

    Megan – I think the hand torches and the kind you get at the hardware store cost about the same amount of money ($20 at the hardware store – wooo! don’t know about the cookstores). I use it for the creme brulees as well as torching anything I want to put a flame too ;) It’s probably just me wanting to burn food.

    Manisha – I will arrive at your house with some form of dessert sooner or later :) xo

    Bri – I need to expand my repertoire too. I only have two flavors right now! ha ha!

    Helene – thanks xo

    Bridget – Wow, by the time it’s torched, my guests usually aren’t willing to wait another 30 ;)

    Meg – oh, part of the Angeles that burned were like our backyard. I was heartbroken :(

    hogie – thanks for that great tip. I will try it!

    Jen – hang in there! I always thought NZ was seismically active because a major plate boundary cuts through the South Island. Well, I hope you’re all recovering. The aftershocks will continue, but… you’ll get used to them just like Californians do. xo

  44. Meghan says:

    Just whipped this up for Christmas desert! So excited to try it!

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  47. Karen says:

    This looks delicious! Your pics are so beautiful. But is it correct that the recipe only calls for 3 tablespoons of sugar in the crème? That seems unusually low. Martha Stewart’s recipe, for example, calls for 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons of sugar to be used in the crème, with additional sugar used for the brûléed topping. Just wanted to check before I attempt the recipe.

  48. jenyu says:

    Karen – You can adjust the sugar in the cream to your liking. I prefer it to be just barely sweet since the brulee is sweet enough with the caramelized topping.

  49. Karen says:

    After much searching, your recipe appealed to me the most. However, I’ve tried it twice now and both times they’ve overcooked. According to my oven thermometer, the temperature is correct. The first time, I baked them for 45 minutes; they came out solid, like a flourless chocolate cake. The second time, I checked them as soon as I could smell them, at 25 minutes, and they were cooked firm again. I’m at sea level–could that have anything to do with the oven temp and/or baking time? Should I adjust either or both?

    Thanks you!

  50. jenyu says:

    Karen – Let’s see, I’m assuming you’re using the water bath and that the water level is high enough to be at the level of the custard? And that your oven is at 300°F? I’m using the original recipe which is written for sea level (this sort of thing is generally well behaved at most elevations), so I don’t think that’s it. No custard in a water bath at 300°F should be cooking solid in 25 minutes. How high is your water level and does it boil off by the time the baking is done (it shouldn’t)? What sort of ramekins are you baking in (shallow, deep, porcelain, glass)? Did you change any of the ingredients? How thick is your custard when you pour it into the ramekins before baking? It’s hard to troubleshoot unless I know the exact steps you took, but if you work with me, I can try to help pinpoint what might be happening.

  51. Karen says:

    I followed your steps exactly.
    I am using the water bath, halfway up the ramekins. I used six, fairly shallow porcelain ramekins. The custard was pretty thin, looked just like your pictures.
    Instead of a roasting pan, I used the bottom of a broiling pan; it was deep enough to hold the ramekins and water. Could that be the culprit?
    And, I used heavy whipping cream because I couldn’t find heavy cream.

    Thanks for your help!

  52. jenyu says:

    Karen – If the broiling pan is deep enough, it shouldn’t be a problem, but… I have a feeling that if your ramekins are shallow and the water goes halfway up the ramekins, that perhaps it’s not enough to insulate the creme brulee from cooking through from the heat of the oven. But in that case, you might want to start jiggling the ramekins after 10 minutes and keep checking until they reach that “wiggle in the center” stage. Also, I assume your pan is in the middle of the oven? No worries on heavy whipping cream – it’s the same as heavy cream.

  53. Karen says:

    Thank you! I’ll try jiggling.

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