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
‘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.
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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