Crème Brûlée is a French term for a rich, baked custard made with cream rather than milk. It is topped with a layer of brown caramelized sugar which was initially accomplished by using a Salamander, a flat disk made of iron on the end of a long handle, that had been heated in a stove’s fire. It was then placed on top of the custard to caramelize the sugar. Now, this method is often replaced with the use of a small blow torch which accomplishes the caramelization; these blow torches are today often considered a kitchen essential.
Crème Brûlée was once considered a quite simple dish, so its origins were not well documented. Known as Creama Catalina in Spain, its creation took place sometime between the 400s and 1400s – a long span of time, I know. Its exact date of creation remains questionable since the Spanish claim its “reinvention,” or one could say refinement, occurred in the 1700s. What all food historians agree upon is that custards were extremely popular in the Middle Ages, and because their popularity circulated across Europe, it is impossible to trace its actual roots.
The history of Crème Brûlée is complicated, and has been hotly debated for centuries as England, France, and Spain all claim to have created the first version. Well, you all know I love a good research project, so I set about to see what I could find out. The first-ever printed recipe for Crème Brulee was published in the 1691 edition of a French cookbook called Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois written by Francois Massialot, a cook at the Palace of Versailles, home of the kings of France in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Besides creating fashionable guides to scrumptious meals, his recipes were organized much like a dictionary making it easy for chefs to use. This dessert, however, quickly evolved to Crème Anglaise (Burnt Cream), a vanilla-flavored custard sauce in the book’s second printing—a slight deviation from a Crème Brûlée. The Crème Anglaise is really a sauce and does not hold its shape when sliced.
Meanwhile, across the channel, the English were creating their own version of Crème Brûlée during the 17th century. Their initial recipe was called Trinity Cream because of its association with Trinity College located in Cambridge. In 1879 the college branded the crisp topping of sugar with its school’s crest to seal its claim. It seems that the poor, wherever they lived, were unlikely to have had access to the dessert at all. Early versions of the dessert did not torch the caramel in place but placed a previously prepared caramel disc on top of the custard.
Back in France, Crème Brûlée became popular again and the dessert was noticed for the first time by the American revolutionaries sent to France for securing funding for their cause. As one may recall many Americans spent time in France. While Benjamin Franklin was entertaining Parisian women, Thomas Jefferson fell in love with everything French—wine, handkerchiefs, and food. He brought the recipe home and eventually served it at a White House dinner. Everyone was enthralled. LBJ might have been disheartened that he did not receive the same acclamations for making and serving BBQ on the White House lawn!
Crème Brûlée appeared to die a gradual death after Jefferson introduced it at the White House. In fact, the term itself did not appear again until the 19th century at which time it was, if at all, served cold. Then, in magazines throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, it suddenly exploded in popularity again when New York’s Cirque Restaurant added it to its menu. It gained real stardom around 1980 as Americans found themselves in new age of decadence, self-indulgence, and interested in all things epicurean. Crème Brûlée made a stunning comeback. In fact, we can now enjoy crème brûlée flavored ice cream, donuts, cupcakes, French toast, and even coffee creamer. So, from all my research, I must conclude that it is a case of “great minds thinking alike,” and all these countries must have created a similar custard dish around the same time. And I must also conclude that though we have a multitude of crème brulee flavored food items to choose from today, none can match the experience of having a real Crème Brûlée at the conclusion of a fine dinner.
Crème Brûlée – I
4 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
¾ cup sugar
8 large egg yolks
½ cup packed light brown sugar
In medium saucepan, warm cream with vanilla bean and salt.
In a large bowl, blend sugar and egg yolks.
Remove vanilla bean, pour cream into yolks, and mix well.
Pour mixture into 6 ramekins or custard cups and place in shallow pan with 1-inch hot water.
Bake at 300ºF for 40 minutes.
Remove and let cool for 30 minutes.
Sieve brown sugar over tops of ramekins and broil for 15 seconds, watching carefully.
Sugar will form a hardened glaze.
Crème Brûlée – II
5 egg yolks
1 whole egg
2 cups heavy whipping cream
½ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
Pinch of salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Butter 4 (6 ounce) ramekins or oven proof custard cups with unsalted butter and set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with the whole egg until smooth.
Stir in the cream.
Strain this mixture through a sieve into another clean large bowl.
Stir in ½ cup sugar, vanilla, and salt with a wire whisk until the sugar dissolves.
Pour the mixture into the prepared ramekins.
Place the ramekins into a 9″ x 13″ glass baking dish.
Carefully pour boiling water around the ramekins, being careful not to get any water into the custard.
Bake the custard for 30 to 40 minutes or until the custard is just set.
Carefully remove the ramekins from the pan and set on a wire rack. Let cool for 30 minutes, then cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
When ready to serve, take the ramekins out of the fridge and place them on a heatproof surface.
Uncover and sprinkle each custard evenly with 1 tablespoon sugar.
Using a kitchen torch, brown the sugar, moving the torch evenly over the top of each custard.
Be careful not to burn the sugar.
Each diner should use a spoon to break the hard sugar top and enjoy the cool custard and crisp topping together.