Lynda Balslev: A not-so-classic creme brulee |

Lynda Balslev: A not-so-classic creme brulee

Rhubarb and rosemary are surprising bedfellows in this creme brulee.
Photo by Lynda Balslev

Rhubarb and rosemary are surprising bedfellows in this creme brulee.

Upright stalks of brilliantly hued rhubarb are always the first to arrive in the spring produce parade. Rhubarb’s natural astringency may overwhelm at first bite, but with a little sugar and fruit, its tartness is successfully tamed. For this dessert, however, I chose not to rely on rhubarb’s dependable sweet partner, the strawberry, because I did not want additional sweetness or liquid in the compote, which is spooned into the bottom of the custards.

I preferred a subtle background flavor that would tickle the tongue and ground the sweet creaminess of the custard. So, I added a sprig of rosemary — yes, rosemary — to the compote and the custard while they cooked, infusing them with a hint of lemon and pine. The result was subtle but notable, producing a creme brulee that is at once rich and creamy, sweet and tart, earthy and heavenly.

Rhubarb and Rosemary Creme Brulee

Active Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, plus cooling and chilling time

Yield: Makes 6 servings


1 pound rhubarb, diced

3/4 cup sugar

1 (2-inch) rosemary sprig

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Creme Brulee:

2 cups heavy cream

1 (2-inch) rosemary sprig

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar plus extra for sprinkling

Finely grated lemon zest for garnish

Combine the compote ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the rhubarb is soft, about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat, discard the rosemary sprig, and cool to room temperature.

Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

Arrange six (6-ounce) ramekins in a baking dish. Spoon some of the rhubarb compote into the ramekins, about 1/3 inch deep. (Refrigerate the remaining compote for another use.)

Heat the cream in a clean saucepan over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Remove from the heat and add the rosemary sprig. Let the cream steep for 5 minutes, then discard rosemary sprig. Stir in the vanilla.

In a mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and the 1/2 cup sugar until light. Add the cream in a steady stream, whisking gently to incorporate. Ladle the cream mixture over the rhubarb in the ramekins. Pour boiling water into the baking dish halfway up the ramekins to make a bain marie, or water bath.

Transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake until the custards are just set but still wobble a bit when gently jiggled, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool the custards in the water for 15 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the pan, place on a wire rack, and cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.

Before serving, sprinkle each ramekin with 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar or enough to evenly cover. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and broil under an oven broiler until the tops are deep golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes, rotating the baking sheet for even cooking and carefully watching to prevent burning. If using a blowtorch, hold the flame 2 to 3 inches above the custard, slowly moving it back and forth until the sugar melts and turns deep golden brown.

Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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