Bistro classics: food writer Mary Cadogan explains the origins of this delicious French dessert
The origins of this French bistro classic are hotly contested. Custard in its various forms were popular throughout Europe during the Middle Ages but the first known recipe for the dessert was mentioned in a French cookbook published in 1691.
The English, however, still consider their version of what they call burnt cream to be the first. Trinity College Cambridge claims to be the birthplace of the dessert, and in their version, the college crest was burnt onto the top using a branding iron, which is still in existence today. Early French versions were made with a separate disc of caramel placed onto the custard before serving, whereas the original English version was made much as it is today, by caramelising the sugar topping on the custard.
To complicate matters further, the Spanish profess their crema catalana or Catalan cream to be the original. This rich custard usually flavoured with orange or lemon zest, and sometimes cinnamon, is usually made in shallow terracotta dishes with the sugar caramelised using a branding iron, or cataplana, heated over the open fire.
Whatever the true origins of this dessert, the delicate combination of rich creamy custard and crisp caramel has been a winning formula for centuries and is still made with pride in countless restaurants throughout France.
It is essentially simple to make but requires careful attention to detail to achieve rich creamy perfection. For a start, the custard must be made with care and cooked gently in a water bath until it is just set to ensure it doesn’t scramble. Then the topping must crack when hit with a spoon. I have tried various ways to achieve this, and unless you have a good even grill, it is worth investing in a cook’s blowtorch for best results. Rather than caramelising the sugar topping in one go, I prefer to build up the layers using icing sugar, which melts quickly and evenly to give the essential snap you need. So armed with this knowledge you have no excuse to try this dessert and put a smile on your guests faces on these cold winter nights.
Crème brûlée recipe
Serves 4 (easily doubled)
This is my classic vanilla version of the dessert, but if you want to vary the flavour, replace the vanilla pod with orange or lemon zest, 100g grated chocolate, a few lavender or rosemary sprigs and/or your favourite liqueur. The leftover egg whites freeze well for later use.
400ml double or whipping cream
1 vanilla pod
5 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
Icing sugar for the topping
1 Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/Gas 4. You will need four ramekin dishes and a roasting tin. Pour the cream into a pan. Split the vanilla pod down its length and scrape the seeds out into the pan, using the tip of a sharp knife. Cut the pod in half and add to the pan. Bring the cream slowly to the boil, and then remove from the heat, cover and leave to infuse for 10 mins.
2 Put the egg yolks into a medium sized bowl and add the sugar. Using a hand electric mixer, whisk for 2-3 mins until it turns paler and increases in volume a little. Return the cream to the boil and pour into the bowl, whisking all the time. Stop whisking as soon as all the cream is added.
3 Strain the mixture through a sieve into a bowl or large jug, pressing out as many of the vanilla seeds as possible. Skim off any foam and discard. Set the ramekins in the roasting tin then carefully pour in the mixture. Pour warm water into the roasting tin to come about halfway up the dishes.
4 Slide the roasting tin into the oven and cook for 20-25 mins. To check they are ready shake the roasting tin gently, the creams will have a slight wobble in the centre. Carefully remove the ramekins from the water, and leave to cool at room temperature. Do not put them in the fridge as this will make them too firm and kill the flavour. You can make the creams in the morning of the day of serving.
5 You can brûlée the tops up to two hours ahead of serving time. Sift an even layer of icing sugar over the creams, then either caramelise the tops using a kitchen blow torch (keep the flame moving for an even finish) or slide under a preheated hot grill until the sugar has melted. Cool slightly, then repeat the process twice more for a lovely crisp finish.