I make Creme Brulee at least twice a week at the restaurant. Until recently I stuck to chocolate and vanilla, but I've branched out and results have been fantastic.
The cool thing about creme brulee is that you can flavor it with pretty much anything you can steep in cream. You can use anything from ground spices and liquors to herbs and fruits. Try thyme, citrus zest, mint, lavender, cardamom, mocha, etc!
I've also recently found out that there is a cart in San Francisco that sells really creative flavors of creme brulee on the street. Next time I'm in San Francisco (which will be the first time I'm in San Francisco), I definitely plan on braving the streets and the lines to try this creamiest of desserts.
The flavor is courtesy of David Lebovitz, in Ready for Dessert, who tells us that ginger contains an enzyme that will prevent the custard from setting unless you parboil it first. Good to know, David! I would've wasted a lot of cream and eggs with out that valuable information.
The base recipe is divine, it's from the Le Cordon Bleu Professional Baking book, and you need look no further for your use-for-everything creme brulee recipe. It's very similar to Lebovitz's.
Lemon Ginger Creme Brulee Recipe (makes 6 servings, half of the recipe I make at the restaurant)
3 cups heavy cream
6 egg yolks
3 oz sugar (a tad less than a half cup)
3 oz thinly sliced ginger plus the grated zest of two lemons*
extra sugar for caramelizing the tops of the brulees
Slice ginger thinly and place in a medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover the ginger and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 minutes, then pour off the water.
Add the cream and the lemon zest to the ginger. Heat until warm again and then let steep for an hour to meld the flavors.
Towards the end of the hour, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and gather your ramekins. You will need approximately 6. Prepare a water bath for them to bake in- a 9 x 13 baking dish works well. Place the ramekins in the pan and pour very hot water around them, half way up their sides.
Strain the cream to remove the ginger and much of the zest. Add the salt. Reheat the cream until quite warm. In a medium bowl, whisk the yolks with the sugar (you can also add the salt at this stage instead of adding it to the cream), until the yolks are pale and fluffy.
Gradually add in the hot cream, whisking constantly. If you move too fast through this stage you will have little bits of cooked egg in your creme brulee, and nobody wants that. Slowly add the cream until it is all well combined. Try not to make too many bubbles on the surface of the custard mixture as you do this.
Pour the custard mixture through a strainer (to remove rouge egg bits) into a spouted container and divide the custard mixture evenly between the ramekins.
You can cover the whole thing with aluminum foil if you're worried about the tops of the brulees browning, but I've found if you cook them in the low-middle of the oven, you don't need to worry about foil. Bake for 30 plus minutes until the edges of the brulees are set and the centers are still a little loose. In the whackadoo oven at the restaurant, this takes over an hour, but in normal ovens it should be closer to 30 minutes.
Cool the custards completely before refrigerating (in the water bath if you're worried about them setting, out of the bath if you're confident they're good to go). They won't completely set until they've been chilled in the fridge.
* for vanilla creme brulee, omit the lemon zest and ginger, adding half of a scraped vanilla bean plus the pod to the cream (You will strain the pod out later) Heat the cream and let steep for only a few minutes (opposed to an hour) before adding it to the yolks. A slick trick to avoid clumps of vanilla seeds in the milk is to rub them into some of the sugar that you are using, then put both rubbed sugar and seeds in the cream. If you have no vanilla bean, use about 1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract...but the resulting brulees won't have exciting flecks of vanilla bean in it.
For serving, grab your kitchen, brulee or small propane torch. Guess what we use at the restaurant? Thats right, the propane torch.
Sprinkle the top of the brulee with sugar and knock off the excess. Blast with the torch until melted but not brown. Sprinkle on another layer of sugar and blast this layer until the sugar is brown and caramelized. Do this step carefully, you don't want black tops to your carefully baked dessert. Nobody wants that.
Let's be real, not all of us have access to a torch. There are other options, but you must choose one because custard with no caramel on top can never be called creme brulee (which I suspect means something to do with "burnt" in french, the sugar being burnt in this case.) (Yep, I was right, it means burnt. Thanks Google.)
You can either sprinkle with sugar and use your oven broiler to try to caramelize the tops, or you can make caramel (with only sugar and water or even just sugar) and pour a thin layer on top of the brulee, swirling it to make it even. Be careful not to burn yourself. Nobody wants that.