This classic dessert was a staple at 70’s and ‘80’s dinner parties but waned in popularity, largely, I believe, because modern domestic grills don’t get hot enough to burn the sugar topping into a hard caramel.
As with so many recipes, we cannot be sure where or how this one originated, but what we do know is that it has spawned yet another bone of contention between those two old adversaries – England and France! Most of the world assumes Crème brulee is French, as the name would seem to suggest. However the English claim that they, in fact, invented it. (The Spanish also claim it comes from their crema catalana.)
Its first appearance in a cookbook was in 1691, when French chef François Massialot wrote about ‘crème brûlée’. But in a later edition, he renamed it ‘crème anglaise’ – English cream.
The English like to believe that the combination of double cream, egg yolk, sugar, vanilla seeds and caramelised sugar originated in the dining rooms of the city’s Trinity College at Cambridge University in the mid-1600s. Crème brûlée (or Burnt cream or Cambridge Cream) was also known as Trinity Cream and the sugar was branded with the college crest with a specially made ‘branding iron’ (like the ones used in the past for branding cattle). (Sadly, it should be noted that Trinity College themselves say it is unlikely to be true – though I much prefer this version of events!)
It was not until the late 19th century that ‘crème brûlée’ – the French translation of burnt cream – became a widely-used name for the dish, leading diners to believe that it had originated in France.
These rich vanilla puddings are gloriously decadent, and very easy to make – especially if one invests in an inexpensive blowtorch which caramelises the sugar evenly and quickly. Sadly, when I tried to make a pandespani stencil of our logo to burn into the sugar, in lieu of using a branding iron, I failed miserably. Never mind – practice makes perfect and you can never have too many crème brûlées to try!
These can be made either in individual ramekins or in one shallow ceramic dish.
Preparation time: Less than 30 mins. Cooking time: 40-45 mins plus cooling time (ideally a few hours before serving). Simple recipe.
Ingredients (serve 6)
1 vanilla pod (or one vanilla capsule)
100g sugar (plus extra for the topping). I like to use Light Brown Soft sugar, but white sugar is fine.
6 free-range egg yolks
Preheat the oven to 150 C.
Preparing the custard: Pour the cream into a saucepan. Split the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape the seeds into the cream. Chop the empty pod into small pieces, and add them to the cream. Bring the cream to boiling point (not yet boiling properly though), then lower the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks together in a large heatproof bowl until pale and fluffy.
Bring the cream back to boiling point (again, do not let it boil properly). Pour it over the egg mixture, whisking continuously until thickened – this indicates that the eggs have begun to cook slightly.
Baking the cream: Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a large jug, and then use this to fill six ramekins (or one shallow dish) to about two-thirds full. Place the ramekins or dish into a large roasting tray and pour in enough hot water to come halfway up their outsides. (This is called a bain-marie.) Put the bain-marie onto the centre shelf of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the custards are just set but still a bit wobbly in the middle.
Remove the ramekins or dish from the water and leave to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until needed.
Serving: When ready to serve, sprinkle sugar evenly over the surface of each crème brûlée (2 or 3 teaspoonfuls should be enough for each ramekin; if using a dish, cover with a ½ cm thick layer of sugar), then caramelise with a chefs’ blow-torch until darker brown and bubbly.