I do seem to enjoy starting each of my projects with a dish that’s just classically cliché (such as the Coq au Vin), so of course Crème Brulee should be my first adventure here. Not to mention it was a fun V-day Brunch Dessert with strawberries.
THE classic dessert, served in a variety of French cafes and restaurants, fine dining US spots, even brunch buffets. Who knew as simple Custard with Burned Sugar on top would have become so popular?
Maybe most of Western Europe, considering how much they’ve contested ownership rights. It is an interesting bit of history, since no one is TRULY clear as to where the dish properly originated. The earliest Recording seems to have been in the mid-1600’s, in England of all places. Trinity College, Cambridge, the cooks made a simple sugar-topped Custard dish where they burned the College Crest on with a branding iron, and thus their claim to the recipe is born. Which I wouldn’t be too surprised if it turned out true, considering the widespread use and popularity of Custards and other Egg-binded “Puddings” in English dessert cuisine. Then it was known simply as Burnt Cream, or Trinity Cream to honor the college origins.
It’s first appearance in a cookbook came in 1691, in France, the Cuisinier roial et bourgeois, called Crème Brulee; though interesting he changed the name to Crème Anglaise (English Cream) in a later book. Also taking into account that early French versions simply made a disk of caramel on the side beforehand to place on top for service, the argument for French dominance seems a bit weaker and weaker.
The Final, and least likely, originator comes in Catalan (Spain), with crema catalana/cremada(burnt). Same kind of recipe, but with cinnamon and citrus zest added, its first recorded appearance seems to have come sometime in the 17th century.
Though the dates on all these seem to go back and forth; one place said that Cambridge started burning in 1879, another that the French didn’t first list until 1731, it’s all a bit confusing and unclear. And not to mention this is all just based off of records, there’s still no evidence or word of mouth who actually made the first version. But either way, we have this delicious dish of contrasting textures and rich toffee-cream. Who cares when it’s all about indulging?
Chef’s Overdramatic Self-Centered Lecture Corner
Vanilla beans are a pretty pricey thing these days, so I only like using the ones I have when it fulfills two criteria. 1: it’s a special dish/occasion, and 2: the vanilla is able to SHINE, i.e. it’s usually a very, very simply flavored dish with no notably competing/contrasting element, usually custard. Crème brulee is a good dish for this.
But because I so rarely use them, MY vanilla beans seem to have “dried up” ever more than usual; they’ll actually snap if I bend them far enough. It makes splitting them open not so easy, and a pain in the ass trying to get all the seeds out. Turns out it’s an easy fix when using them to infuse though; just let it soak in the Cream (or other liquid you’re cooking) overnight beforehand. It softens up so nicely, just look!
As for the custard, my recipe searches have found that nearly all recipes use ONLY Heavy Cream as their dairy of choice; which is usually odd with custard recipes. The main differences come simply in how many yolks are used (my favorite being Alton Brown’s, who uses the minimum 6 for a quart of cream; it keeps it to a really tender and soft pudding) and whether it uses cornstarch or some other binder. Ignore the starch additions, you don’t need them at all, and they only serve to mess up the flavor.
Finally, when it comes to Torching your sugar, I do always suggest using a blowtorch if you have one (the little handheld guy is so fun and a great tool to have); but not everybody does. Fear not, a simple solution presents itself; just turn your Broiler on High and stick it in (after the broiler’s warmed up of course). There are a couple adjustments to how the dish should be treated as you go, and I’ve made a couple notes in the recipe where suited.
1 Vanilla Bean
1 Quart Heavy Cream
6 Egg Yolks
½ cup Sugar + Extra for dusting
- Split vanilla bean, thoroughly scraping its insides of the fine seeds with a paring knife.
- Transfer both seeds and leftover bean pod to a pot with the Heavy Cream and Salt; warm on Medium heat until thoroughly Scalded (skin starts forming on top and the edges are barely simmering).
- While warming, whip Yolks thoroughly with a whisk, slowly incorporating the ½ cup of Sugar, until it turns very pale yellow and fluffy.
- Slowly pour in a bit of the warmed cream at a time, “tempering” the delicate yolks to the heat. After about 1/3 of cream is incorporate, simply dump the rest in, whisking to fully mix.
- Let cool on counter, cover in plastic wrap (pressing to the top to prevent skin formation), and transfer to fridge for a minimum 2 hours or Overnight.
- Strain out vanilla bean and ladle your custard into whatever ramekin or other ramekin-like container you have.
- Turn oven to 325F and start boiling a large saucepan (2 quarts) of Water.
- Transfer ramekins to roasting or other baking pan, carefully filling with the hot water until it’s just a bit below where the custard level is.
- Bake until mostly set and the center still jiggles when you shake, about 40-45 minutes. Note: if using a larger baking dish, or Broiling later, then feel free to take out earlier than it may seem. The residual heat, greater than in the small pan, should follow it through further, plus the Broiling heats the custard up a lot.
- Move to fridge for overnight, or until chilled completely.
- Remove 1/2 hour before ready to serve. When close to ready, sprinkle on an even, only slightly heavy layer (don’t want it super fine or thin, just a bit more sugar than that) over top, shaking and rotating ramekin to get an even coating. Note: if Broiling, I actually DO prefer a finer layer, as it takes longer for the sugar to start cooking, and can get much more spotty than with a torch.
- Brulee sugar however desired, whether with blowtorch, broiler, or the classic branding iron.
- Let sit 5 minutes after caramelizing and serve, on its own or with fruit.
I really like this custard recipe; very nice and creamy, not that rich/heavy with the yolky custardy flavor, simple but developed. The vanilla bean is able to shine through along with the sugar flavor very well. As for the dish, always a classic; crispy, crunchy sugar caramel with a smooth milkfatty pudding. French comfort dessert at its finest.
One of the many French desserts that have lost a sense of belonging to a particular region, being seen all over. Often with those kinds of desserts, they’re usually attributed a bit more towards the Parisian area, so Loire pairings it is.
I think one of the lightly sweet Coteaux du Layon dessert wines made with Chenin Blanc would be delicious, or a Methode Ancien sparkling Loire (also made with Chenin), especially if one could find a Demi-Sec version (half dry, or really half-sweet).
Can’t leave out the other countries vying for credit on the burnt cream’s creation. And England has been creating some wonderful Sparkling Wines as of late; with their continental temps, they might even have Ice Wine. Either of those would be a fantastic, simple drink next to this I believe.
As for Catalan in Spain, hmmmm….. I know! They make a great lightly sparkling, off-dry Cider in the Basque. It’s sort of musky, but pure and simple, and just a nice little gulp. Would go great with the cinnamon-citrus zest version, and I happen to have a bottle that I used to pair with an upcoming Savory French 44 dish.
And to end on hard alcohol, a glass of Calvados (an apple brandy made in Northern France); it’s on the border of France and England, shares similar flavor profiles with cognac to make it match the burnt sugar of the dessert, not as overpowering when young. But gentle and deep when old, a good drink with complexity to go with the very simple but delightful custard.
And that ends the first of hopefully many “sweet” posts on the subject. Hope those reading enjoyed it, and are able to take some fun things into consideration with their next baking session. I’ll see you all on the next go-round!