The Perfect Crème Brûlée

This luscious dessert has somewhat obscure origins, having evolved in England, but is probably of French inspiration.

Despite its French name, the recipe appears neither in L’Art Culinaire Français nor in Le Répertoire de la Cuisine, both comprehensive manuals of classic French cooking. It does not appear in either the homely Tante Marie or Pellaprat’s La Cuisine Familiale et Practique, nor yet in Larousse Gastronomique. The nearest thing to it is crème anglaise, which is none other than a stirred, not baked, egg custard made by pouring scalded cream or milk over egg yolks beaten with sugar, which is then cooked further until it thickens, and then chilled, which thickens it even more.

On the other hand, this recipe and technique are to be found in numerous English recipe collections dating back to the Middle Ages. The Ordinance of Pottage, a fifteenth-century collection, has a recipe for Crème Boyled, which is essentially as described above, and flavoured with saffron. We find it, too, in the Elizabethan kitchen, and then fairly regularly from the eighteenth century onwards. Mrs Mary Eales, confectioner to Queen Anne, has recipes for ratafia cream and sack cream, which are the same flavoured custards, as does Hannah Glasse in 1717. The version with the crunchy caramelized topping is to be found as long ago as 1769, as Burn t Cream, in Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper.

Marcel Boulestin, who enjoyed the dessert many times at Trinity College, Cambridge, claims it was invented by Mr Hartmann, for many years the Swiss head chef at Trinity towards the end of the nineteenth century. The dish was then known as Crème Brûlée à la Trinity. But the plot thickens. Jane Grigson in English Food, and Florence White in Good Things in England some forty years earlier, describe how the recipe was brought to Trinity by a Scottish undergraduate in the 1860s. It was rejected by the kitchen, but when the undergraduate became a fellow in 1879, it quickly became part of Mr Hartmann’s repertoire.

‘Of French inspiration’ is probably the best description. So many of our dishes have similar origins, which is scarcely surprising given the Norman Conquest, the influx of émigrés and their chefs after the French Revolution, and the nineteenth-century colonization of London’s kitchens by Carême, Soyer and Escoffier, not to mention the twentieth-century Roux, Blancs and Bourdins.

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Ingredients

    You Need

  • For 6 people, 600 mls (1 pint) (double) cream, 1 vanilla pod, 6 free-range egg yolks, 50 g (2 oz) caster sugar, 100 g (4 oz) Demerara sugar.

Method

Bring the cream and vanilla pod to the boil. In a bowl beat the egg yolks and caster sugar and pour the scalded cream on the mixture, beating continuously. Strain the mixture into a double boiler, or a bowl set over hot water. Scrape the vanilla seeds into the custard, and use the pod, once rinsed and dried, to flavour vanilla sugar. Heat the custard, stirring continuously, until it thickens. Remove from the heat and stir until cool. Pour into ramekins and chill until set. Sprinkle on an even layer of Demerara sugar and caramelize it under the grill or with a salamander. Chill again until required.

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