Creme brulee, Crème brûlée [krehm-broo-lay]
The literal translation of this rich dessert is BURNT CREAM. It describes a chilled, stirred CUSTARD that, just before serving, is sprinkled with brown or granulated sugar. The sugar topping is quickly caramelized under a broiler or with a salamander. The caramelized topping becomes brittle, creating a delicious flavor and texture contrast to the smooth, creamy custard beneath.
The earliest known recipe for crème brûlée (burnt cream) appears in François Massialot’s 1691 cookbook Cuisinier royal et bourgeois. The name “burnt cream” was used in the 1702 English translation. Confusingly, in 1740 Massialot referred to a similar recipe as crême à l’Angloise; ‘English cream’.
The dish then vanished from French cookbooks until the 1980s. A version of crème brûlée (known locally as Trinity Cream or Cambridge burnt cream) was introduced at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1879 with the college arms impressed on top of the cream with a branding iron’.
Crème brûlée was not very common in French and English cookbooks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It became extremely popular in the 1980s, “a symbol of that decade’s self-indulgence and the darling of the restaurant boom”, probably popularized by Sirio Maccioni at his New York restaurant Le Cirque. He claimed to have made it “the most famous and by far the most popular dessert in restaurants from Paris to Peoria”.
Crème brûlée is usually served in individual ramekins. Discs of caramel may be prepared separately and put on top just before serving, or the caramel may be formed directly on top of the custard immediately before serving. To do this, sugar is sprinkled onto the custard, then caramelized under a salamander broiler or with a butane torch
- 500ml / 2 cups double cream
- 1 vanilla pod
- 5 egg yolks
- 100g / 3 oz sugar
- Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
- In a small pan bring the cream to just on simmering point, then take off the heat, put in the vanilla pod, cover the pan and leave to infuse for 10 minutes.
- Put four 175ml ramekins in a deep roasting tin.
- Beat the egg yolks with 50g of the sugar in a mixing bowl with an electric beater, until it turns pale in colour and starts to thicken. Reheat the vanilla infused cream but don’t let it boil.
- Pour the hot cream over the beaten egg yolks, stirring as you do so. Remove the vanilla pod.
- Pour enough hot water from the tap into the roasting tin, so that it comes 1.5 cm up the side of the ramekins. Fill each ramekin with the hot cream mix. Carefully slide the whole tin into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. The custards should have set at the edges but still be a bit wobbly in the middle. You don’t want them to be too firm.
- Take the ramekins out of the tray, cool for a few minutes, then chill in the fridge for at least four hours.
- No more than one or two hours before they will be served, finish off the creme brulees. Sprinkle 1 ½ teaspoons of sugar evenly over each ramekin, making sure it completely covers the surface. Either place close under a hot grill for 2-3 minutes, or use a blow torch to caramelize the sugar, by holding it just over the sugar and moving it around and around until done. Give the caramel a few minutes in the fridge to cool and crisp before serving.