Originated from France, the crème brûlée is a dessert consisting of a rich custard base made from a simple combination of cream, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla, topped with a contrasting layer of caramel. Served in individual ramekins, sugar is sifted onto the custard and then caramelized with a blow torch or a broiler.
To many, it may seem to be merely an egg custard with a hard, toffee crust, but to those who’ve tasted this classic dessert at its best, the crème brûlée is a symphony of sweet, creamy perfection.
The first recordings of this delicious dessert in its French form were in 1691, but, its origin might not actually be French at all. While eggs had been used as binding agents in cooking in Ancient Roman kitchens, it was not until the Middle Ages that custards were widely adopted as sweet fillings and binders for tarts, flans and other desserts.
Trinity College in Cambridge, England claims to be the birthplace of the dessert. In fact, their kitchen possesses a special hot iron used to burn the college crest onto the sugar on top of the custard. It is said that a young college student came up with the dish — a creamy unsweetened custard with a caramelized topping, sometime in the 17th century. The cooking staff then replicated the recipe and dubbed it ‘Trinity Burnt Cream’. While it really cannot be proven that the Trinity College in Cambridge had anything to do with inventing the delectable treat, the kitchens there are still well known for making and serving their version of crème brûlée.
Besides that, the French version is very sweet, whereas the British version is unsweetened, and usually has a thicker and crustier topping. Early French versions of the dessert also had a separately prepared caramel disc layered on top of the custard, rather than the British method of caramelising the sugar directly onto the custard.
The Spanish claim that their dessert known as ‘crema catalana’, is the true predecessor of the crème brûlée and that they invented it in the 18th century (about 100 years after England’s claim to custard supremacy) It is also a rich custard topped with caramelised sugar, often flavoured with lemon or orange zest. However, the crema catalana, unlike the crème brûlée, is not baked in a bain-marie and is generally served as a cold custard with a hot topping. No one truly knows if it is the genuine predecessor of the crème brûlée, or just another variation of a custard that has been around for hundreds of years.
Whatever its place of birth, the iconic combination of a smooth and crunchy texture has kept the crème brûlée unchanged for centuries, and has perpetuated its popularity internationally. The wide availability of high quality kitchen equipment has made crème brûlée as popular in homes as it has always been in restaurants, and many interesting twists on the recipe, such as the inclusion of lavender, pumpkin, saffron, tea or seemingly any fruit imaginable, have kept boredom from setting in.
The crème brûlée is a great example of simple, classical cooking. It is memorable, delicate and yet simple to prepare. It is one of my favourite desserts and I prefer it when it is served warm. The crisp layer of caramel and the smooth consistency of the custard is simply irresistible as it melts in your mouth, tantalising your taste buds.
For those of you who love cooking, why not try making your own crème brûlée? Pair it up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a handful of berries and you’ll be on your way to seventh heaven!
Laura Zheng (4U)