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Creme brulee

No dessert impresses guests more than creme brulee, French for "burnt cream." But making the "ta-da" dessert is easier than you might think. Whether you're making the classic version or a variation like espresso or chocolate, a successful creme brulee is creamy on the inside and brittle and caramelized on the outside; if it doesn't crack with a tap of a spoon, it's not a true creme brulee.

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recipe

One of Martha Stewart's favorites, creme brulee's seductive secret lies is in the contrast between the brittle caramelized topping and the smooth, creamy custard beneath. French for "burnt cream," creme brulee is best served immediately after caramelizing its sweet, sugary surface.

recipe

Wide and shallow 9-ounce molds are perfect for creme brulee because they provide ample surface area, ensuring a bit of crunchy topping in every bite (you'll need five of them for this recipe). Ten half-cup ramekins can be used instead; reduce sugar topping for each custard to 1 1/2 teaspoons, and add 10 minutes to the baking time, since the custards will be deeper.

recipe

These individual desserts, subtly infused with licorice flavor, are studies in texture. Creamy custard fills crisp, dense chocolate pastry shells, and a topping of lacy sugar crackles with each bite. For the best results, prepare these tarts no more than one day in advance, and wait to caramelize them until just before serving. This way, the tart shells will remain firm and crumbly, and the sugary topping will keep its crunch.

recipe

This chocolate-centric creme brulee retains the creaminess and caramelized-sugar topping of the classic version. Though caramel and chocolate are considered sweets, the real secret to their allure is an undercurrent of bitterness, a natural component of cacao and burned sugar.

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