Gebrannte Crème

January 8, 2010
by Jack McNulty

Like bumble bees defying physics in order to fly, the Swiss have managed to disregard any health risks associated with eating high fat/sugar foods; they happily continue consuming desserts like gebrannte crème…a luscious soupy dessert made from caramelized sugar, milk, cream, eggs and a thickener – and amazingly garnished with…well yes, whipped cream.

Warning…you should proceed with caution if you are trying to lose weight or if you are concerned with your blood glucose level…oh, and gebrannte crème can be addictive!

Gebrannte crème is also called crème brûlée in the French-speaking side of the röstigraben but, please don’t confuse this Swiss classic with a baked custard.

My first encounter with gebrannte crème occurred while working at Kaiser’s Reblaube restaurant in Zürich during the late 1990s. It was a late evening on my very first day of work…Suddenly the chef yelled out for one ‘crème brûlée,’ and I immediately felt somehow relieved at recognizing a menu item. You see, I had just spent the last twelve hours trying to understand the strange German dialect everyone around me was speaking…Swiss German with a distinct Portuguese-, French-, Kosovan- or Swiss accent.

Then, out came the dessert in a large ceramic bowl. I watched with curiosity and a bit of shock as Paolo began to ladle the cream into a soup bowl. What? I know I was still technically in culinary school, but I was sure a crème brûlée was baked a bit longer than this soupy concoction. Surely I misunderstood the order, so I asked Paulo if he heard correctly. He just gazed at me with one of those I-know-you-just-said-something-but-I’m-not-sure-what looks, and simply asked me to try some. I was skeptical…but also interested.

The cream entered with a cool lusciousness somewhat reminiscent to ice cream – just not as cold. My taste buds immediately jumped to life as the caramel-flavored cream coated every part of my mouth. The flavor was vaguely familiar to dulce de leche, yet somehow more sophisticated. The intensity of the caramel was tempered by all that cream and milk…and most amazing of all…it tasted light! I shuttered…and from that moment, I knew I needed to learn how to make this dessert.

Sadly, not too many restaurants make their own gebrannte crème from scratch any longer, preferring instead to save a few francs and use one of those awful dried mixes…yikes, sort of like mashed potatoes from a box…So, to get the true experience of this classical Swiss dessert you may need to make your own. Here’s how…

One important warning before getting started. Working with hot sugar can be very dangerous. I recall a particularly awful experience I had while working in a very nice restaurant in Italy. We were making cute little sugar garnishes by piping designs of caramelized sugar onto a baking tray. I was pressed for time and decided to just work quickly…and without any gloves to protect me. What could go wrong…right? Well, as it turns out, plenty could and did go wrong. The piping bag burst open onto my hand leaving me with a very ugly burn, which took months to heal. I don’t mean to be too dramatic and this recipe is not terribly hazardous to make, but please be mindful of the dangers involved while working with hot sugar…especially if kids are around.

The next important tip is get the right pan. I like using a high-sided pan, which has plenty of room for the sugar to bubble away. Avoid using a pan which is too small or even a frying pan – unless you like cleaning up dried bits of caramel which will sizzle out of the pan and pepper your countertop.

It is also important to get all of your ingredients together before you begin. You will need the following to make enough for about 4 servings: Place 250 grams granulated sugar in your pot, then measure out 80 grams of water in a separate cup. In another separate measuring cup, mix together 4 dl. whole milk with 1 dl. cream. Finally, in yet another separate bowl, combine 35 grams corn starch, 1 Tablespoon vanilla sugar, 2 egg yolks and 1.5 dl. whole milk.

Ok, let’s put it together!

Start by caramelizing the sugar over medium-high heat – I use number 7 of 9 on my stovetop. It is really important to refrain from stirring the sugar too much until it is mostly caramelized. I like to move the sugar around a bit just to make sure it melts evenly. One other little helpful tip is to lightly coat the sides of the pan with some water. I simply get a wet brush and sort of paint the sides of the pan, taking care to not allow any water go dribble into the sugar. This little water coating helps reduce the amount of sugar that could stick to the sides.

So when is the sugar done? Good question! I like my gebrannte crème to have a very rich caramel flavor so I like to take the caramel to a very dark color – just shy of black! Look for the bubbles on the surface of the sugar to form…once they are covering the sugar it’s time for the next step.

Add the water to the sugar. Be careful here as this will cause some splattering. Some people like to remove the pot from the heat and then add the water, but that’s really not necessary. Make sure you stir the sugar well though, and get ready for the next step.

Add the milk and cream all together, then turn the heat down to medium. Stir the mixture very well. You may notice some sugar bits that have crystallized. That’s ok…if you keep stirring, those little bits will eventually melt. Try to scrape the sides of the pan to pry loose any stubborn bits – do this carefully however…too much movement could cause some splashing.

Once the mixture is relatively smooth, it is time to add the thickening mixture. Make sure you mix it up well before adding it to the caramel, as the corn starch will tend to settle. Once you add the thickener, make sure you keep stirring for a couple of minutes until you notice the cream thickening. Remove the pot from the heat, then strain the cream into a clean bowl. Place a bit of plastic wrap over the top of the cream to prevent any skin from forming…and don’t forget the quality control!

Gebrannte crème is best served cold, so make sure you get it refrigerated for a few hours. You can also lighten it up and thin it a bit by beating in some cold cream just before serving. We always did this in the restaurant…adding just enough cream to create a consistency of a thick soup.

If you really want to impress Swiss friends (or if you really like fat), then serve the cream in a shallow soup bowl and top with a dollop of whipped cream. I generally leave out the whipped cream part, but I really like having a portion of gebrannte crème with something hot…something like beignets (just in case you need more fat and sugar)…

Another variation I like…Try adding about 50 gr. of white chocolate to the hot crème and enjoy the whole thing served warm. Avoid milk and dark chocolate though, as they are too strong and will interfere with the taste of the caramel.

Sorry to those who may be on a new year’s diet, and sorry to those who may have a new addiction!


video credits: the video was shot, produced and edited by Silvia Gautschi McNulty… The tasty gebrannte crème was made by Jack McNulty…The original music was composed by Gavin Norton… The vocals were were provided by Arno van Workum and recorded in a sauna somewhere in Austria…