Rhubarb and rosemary are surprising bed fellows in this not-so-classic crème brûlée. Upright, brilliantly hued rhubarb is always the first to arrive to the spring party. Its astringency may be overwhelming, but with some sugar coating and frequent pairing with the indefatigable strawberry, rhubarb’s tartness is successfully tamed. For this dessert, however, I did not want to rely on the dependable strawberry, which would add further sweetness and more liquid to the rhubarb compote. I wanted a subtle background flavor that would tickle the tongue and ground the ethereal creaminess of the custard without approaching the sugar tipping point. I happened to have fresh rosemary sprigs lying on the kitchen counter as the rhubarb simmered on the stove. Their woody aroma mingled with the wafts of steam rising from the compote. It smelled magnificent. I tossed a sprig into the pot of rhubarb and another sprig into the cream to infuse the custard. The results were subtle but notable, producing a crème brûlée that is at once rich and creamy, sweet and tart, earthy and heavenly.
Rhubarb and Rosemary Crème Brûlée
2 cups diced rhubarb, 1/2″ square
2 large rosemary sprigs
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 cups heavy cream
6 egg yolks
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
Combine rhubarb, 1 rosemary sprig, 1/2 cup sugar and lemon zest in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the rhubarb is soft but still retains its shape, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Remove and discard rosemary sprig.
Preheat oven to 350 F. (180 C.) Heat cream in another saucepan over medium heat just until it begins to boil. Remove from heat and add 1 rosemary sprig. Let stand 15 minutes to infuse. Strain cream through a fine meshed sieve into a bowl. Discard solids and rosemary sprig.
Arrange 6 shallow (1/2 cup) ramekins in a baking dish. Divide rhubarb among ramekins.
Whisk egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar together in a bowl until light. Add cream in a steady stream, whisking gently to avoid making air bubbles. Ladle the cream mixture over the rhubarb into the ramekins.
Pour boiling water into the baking pan half way up the ramekins. Bake in oven until custard is just set but still wobbly, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven. Cool in bain maire for 15 minutes. Transfer ramekins to a rack and cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Before serving, mix the granulated and brown sugar together in a small bowl. Sprinkle each ramekin with 1 tablespoon sugar, or enough to cover. Light a blowtorch and hold the flame 2-3 inches above the custard, slowly moving it back and forth until the sugar melts and turns deep golden brown. (Or place under an oven broiler. Carefully watch to prevent burning.)
Serve garnished with a sprig of rosemary.