Steep Perchance to Sleep: Vanilla Lavender Crème Brûlée

Crème brûlée

For all of my other imperfections, I’ve always prided myself on being a perfect sleeper—one of those people who climbs into bed talking and is unconscious before she can finish what she was saying. Once, not long ago, John replayed for me a sound recording he had made the previous night on his phone. I am snoring so loudly, it is truly terrifying. The noises coming out of my face were not ones you’d ever want to be associated with.

I have slept soundly and deeply for as long as I can remember. Gelfond family lore has it that when I was 4 or 5, my parents were awakened in the night to a loud “THUD” from my room. They came running, only to find that I had fallen out of bed, hit my face on the corner of my night stand, had a bloody nose—and was still fast asleep.

Lil vanil bean

Dried Lavender

These kinds of stories continue into adulthood. I recall waking up one weekend morning in the Brooklyn apartment I shared with my roommate, Liz. I wandered sleepily into the kitchen, where Liz was sitting at the table. “I cannot BELIEVE you slept through that,” said Liz.

“Through what?” I asked. Liz explained that she’d been awakened at dawn to a crash so loud, she was convinced the apartment building had been hit by a bomb. As it turned out, a car fleeing the police had careened down our street, smashing into parked vehicles like bumper cars. Outside, the sidewalks were a web of yellow crime scene tape. I had slept like an angel.


But now, it seems that my excellent track record has run its course: for the first time in my life, I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I blame it on the fact that I’m just not exhausted enough at the end of the day. In New York City, even just walking a few blocks down the street demanded a lot of energy—it was sensory overload all the time. Cars, pigeons, window displays, dog poop, someone you know, sirens everywhere, always. In Raleigh, life is pretty chilled out. I’m chill, but I’m also hoarding energy like a squirrel saving up nuts for the winter. Of course, it’s nice not to be so exhausted. I’m not complaining—I’m just not sleeping.

Cage free oeufs


Whatever the reason for my sleepless nights, I am determined to solve the issue with crème brûlée. You heard me: crème brûlée. The beautiful thing about crème brûlée—well, one of many beautiful things—is that you can steep just about anything in the crème. I have seen everything from green tea crème brûlée to banana cardamom crème brûlée to coffee crème brûlée, and on and on. The smooth, eggy custard is to die for all on its own, but it also provides you with carte blanche to add whatever it is you wish to flavor it with. And so this is what I’ve schemed: Vanilla Lavender Crème Brûlée.

Ready for their bain-marie

Lavender, by the way, is pretty neat. It’s a flowering plant in the mint family, with lovely blue or violet buds that, when dried, are sometimes used as a culinary herb. For centuries, lavender has also been thought to possess therapeutic properties. Scour the internet and you’ll find people all over the place claiming lavender as an antiseptic, an anti-inflammatory, a sedative, an anti-depressive, and on and on.

Pretty neat.

When I confined my search to legitimate sources, though, like, a few things became clear. The first was that not enough large-scale studies have been done to make anything conclusive. Oh well. The second was a bit more promising, however, in that small-scale human studies have shown that the aroma of lavender may slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and put you in a parasympathetic (relaxed) state. The effects have been more pronounced in “women and younger people.” (Well, I was a woman the last time I checked, but a younger person? Depends on who I decide to ask.)

Getting ready for the fun part

Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, I found that not enough research had been done on the effects of lavender when steeped inside crème brûlée. I felt that this was an unforgivable oversight and immediately decided to step up to the plate.


(And because I love to run with metaphors) I will tell you the recipe I concocted (for testing purposes) hits it out of the park. Judged solely on flavor, this is a stop-everything-and-moan-loudly-to-yourself dish. It is silken and creamy, sweet and a little bit floral. But this dessert appeals to other senses, too: crack through the caramelized shell—I use a mini condiment spoon, because it’s cute but also because then dessert lasts longer (fact)—and scoop out the custard, speckled with tiny vanilla beans. It’s so beautiful, you can’t believe you made it.

I bet you’re wondering: but did the lavender-enhanced crème brûlée help you sleep, Carly? Oh, uh, yeah maybe. I am definitely sleeping better, post-VLCB. But I think that’s because Homeland is over and I stopped taking my phone to bed. I guess I forgot to control my variables. Oops. Hey, I’m a cook, not a scientist. Enjoy!

Who's your daddy.


Vanilla Lavender Crème Brûlée

Special Equipment: This recipe requires use of a torch to caramelize the sugar on your VLCB. They are pretty inexpensive and nice to have. I just bought one and it is really awesome. Don’t forget to buy the butane, sold separately! (Yes, I know: supposedly, you can put the ramekins under the broiler as an alternative, but I’ve read that this cooks unevenly and, as one cookbook put it, “don’t even think about it.”

Note: This dish needs to chill for several hours, so plan your day accordingly!

4 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Pinch table salt
Seeds of 1 vanilla bean (pod will be used, too)
2 teaspoons dried culinary lavender flowers*
12 large egg yolks
About 8 teaspoons turbinado or Demerara sugar (in a pinch, granulated sugar will work)

*I bought mine from these guys at the Grand Army Plaza Farmer’s Market in Brooklyn. You can also buy it from them online.


Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Combine 2 cups of the cream with the sugar and and salt in a medium saucepan. Add the vanilla seeds, the vanilla bean pod, and the lavender to the cream. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Remove the pan from the heat and let steep, covered, 15 minutes.

Line a large baking dish with high sides with a kitchen towel. Arrange 8 small (4- or 5-ounce) ramekins on the towel. Bring a large saucepan or kettle of water to boil.

Stir remaining 2 cups of cold cream into the hot cream to temper it.

Whisk the yolks in a large bowl. Add the cream mixture into the yolks and stir to combine evenly.

Strain cream egg mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl. Discard solids. Pour mixture into ramekins.

Place baking dish with ramekins on rack in oven. CAREFULLY pour boiled water into the baking dish without splashing water on self or into the ramekins. Fill until water is halfway up the ramekins.

Bake about 30 minutes, or until centers of ramekins are just barely set and do not slosh.

Transfer ramekins to a wire rack and cool 2 hours. Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate 4 hours (or up to 4 days).

Uncover the ramekins and sprinkle with turbinado or Demerera sugar. Tilt ramekin so that sugar evenly covers the cream. Ignite torch and carefully caramelize the sugar for a few seconds.

Refrigerate to re-chill for about 30 minutes (but no longer), then serve immediately.

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