Rhubarb and Rosemary Crème Brûlée

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
Makes 6

2 cups diced rhubarb
1/2 cup plus 2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 (2-inch) rosemary sprigs
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 cups heavy cream
6 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons light brown sugar

1. Combine the rhubarb, the 1/2 cup sugar, one rosemary sprig, and the 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. Discard the rosemary sprig.
2. Arrange 6 shallow (1/2 cup) ramekins in a baking dish. Divide rhubarb among ramekins.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).
4. Heat the cream and the remaining rosemary sprig in a large saucepan over medium heat just until it begins to boil. While the cream is heating, whisk the egg yolks and the 2/3 cup sugar in a heat-proof bowl until light. When the cream is ready, remove the rosemary sprig from the cream and then slowly pour the cream into the egg mixture, gently whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from curdling.
Return the custard to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard thickens slightly and coats the spoon. Ladle the cream mixture over the rhubarb in the ramekins.
6. Pour boiling water into the baking pan half way up the ramekins to make a bain marie. Transfer to the oven and bake until the custard is just set but still wobbly, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool in the water for 15 minutes, then transfer the ramekins to a rack and cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
7. 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 to 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.)