Rich little dessert has a debatable history

19:40, Nov 04 2012
Creme brulee
Creme brulee.

Time for something sweet! Let's look at a dish with hotly contested origins. It's a small silky custard dish we warmly know as creme brulee.

There have been many claims made to the origin of the creme brulee. In England the story goes that during the 17th century a chef accidentally burnt a sugar- topped custard. He served it to the students at Trinity College in Cambridge and called it burnt cream.

It seems they enjoyed the dessert and using an iron bar set the Trinity crest on the top of the dish; it then become known as Cambridge burnt cream and claimed as a British dish.

A similar dish called crema catalana is served in Spain. Generally flavoured with cinnamon and lemon, its reputed 18th-century origins are even sketchier than those from across the Channel. Spain's dish was made by grandmothers or maiden aunts and only eaten on St Joseph's Day, which happens to be March 19.

The first recipe for creme brulee appeared in 1691 in Francois Massialot's Le Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois. Even more interesting, the flavours at that time were simply "de jour" (of the day) where cinnamon, lime or orange peel, candied fruit, nuts, rose water, orange flower water and all sorts of other ingredients were used for flavouring, far from the hardcore vanilla lovers of today.

In the original recipe (and probably up to about the 19th century) creme brulee was made by making a creme anglaise on the stovetop.


The contemporary method today is to bake the custard in a bain marie and then chill it before caramelising the top. It is usually served in an individual ramekin with the caramel either having been prepared separately and placed on top or formed directly on top of the custard by sprinkling with sugar and caramelising under a broiler or the modern method of a blow torch.

Regardless of the dish's origin creme brulee is an unashamedly rich dessert, hence it is generally served in fairly small quantities of about half a cup in volume.

CREME BRULEE (makes six portions)

400ml cream

100ml milk

1 cinnamon quill

1 vanilla bean split, with the seeds scraped and removed

5 egg yolks

cup castor sugar (plus additional for dusting and caramelising the tops)

Method: Combine the cream, milk and cinnamon quill, vanilla bean and seeds into a heavy based saucepan and place over a medium heat, slowly bringing it almost to the boil.

Combine the egg yolk and sugar in a bowl and whisk until thick and pale.

While whisking continuously add half the hot cream mixture to the egg and sugar mixture and combine well, then stir in the remaining hot cream mixture.

Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl then ladle into six half-cup-sized ramekins.

Place these ramekins into a roasting dish and pour in sufficient hot tap water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Cover the pan with foil then pierce the foil all over using a skewer to prevent condensation from building while cooking.

Place the tray in an oven at 150° Celsius and bake for 40-50 minutes or until the custard has just set. Remove the tray from the oven and then remove the ramekins from the tray and cool to room temperature.

Now cover and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight. When ready to serve scatter each custard with an even layer of castor sugar then using a blowtorch caramelise the sugar until you have a lovely crunchy caramel effect on the top.

Chef's note:What to do with the leftover egg whites? Make meringues of course.

Graham Hawkes operates Paddington Arms at the Queens Dr/Bainfield Rd roundabout.

The Southland Times