"For some reason, a bowl of custard isn't seen as an appropriate dessert for a grown adult – but scorch the top and give it a French name and it's suddenly all sophisticated" Felicity Cloake
The idea for this post comes from Roast chicken and other stories by Simon Hopkinson, which you may remember, I bought for myself some time ago. I have done the odd post inspired by it, but not yet done an overall review. Coming some time soonish I think.
But I did bookmark some pages and this was one of them. I marked it for two reasons - (a) I love crème brulée - well who doesn't - and (b) because of his rather nice introduction/story before the recipe. He says that it was one of the very first things he made - unusual I thought - made at the age of thirteen from a recipe from his mother's Cordon Bleu magazine collection:
"My own first effort was a sorry tale. I so desperately wanted to make it, but it did sound tricky, with instructions to stir gently for what seemed like an age. The recipe said to cook the custard until the mixture coated the back of a wooden spoon. To this day I have always thought this the stupidest advice, because when you make crème brulée, the custard coats the back of the spoon even before you've started cooking it! It's a nerve-racking process because you are terrified of overcooking the mixture and of having to chuck out a pint of double cream. Anyway, I failed miserably because I was frightened of cooking the mixture too much and my caramel topping was a bit thick. So when I attacked it with a spoon it was very alarming. The lumps of caramel floated around and then instantly sank into my splashy custard."
Obviously he later mastered it because this is the version you will find on the net that is credited to him. It is reproduced by the writer of the blog Culinary Camel and I have to say it looks like a pretty perfect version.
However, to begin my research I, of course, went straight to the perfectionist Felicity Cloake who, of course, takes you through most of the possibilities, and combines the best of the best to create her own 'perfect' version, shown here.
The really interesting thing though was that it seems that she too was a crème brulée fan from an early age:
At one time, between the ages of seven and 12, I believe I was among the south-east's foremost creme brulee experts. In the 80s and early 90s, it seemed to be on every dessert menu – and if it was there, I had to have it. But, even at that age, I recognised that not all brulees were created equal. The best had a crisp shell that shattered satisfyingly under my spoon and a rich, smooth layer of custard beneath with just a whisper of vanilla. Any softness on the top, or graininess in the custard was not tolerated – although, as a professional, I always cleaned the dish regardless." Felicity Cloake
Of course, since everyone is different, opinions as to what is perfect also vary. Although in this case I think I will go along with her requirements. Although. Perhaps the best Crème brulée I have ever had was in a tiny village in the Pyrenees approached via various narrow roads perched on the side of mountains with precipitous drops into the valleys below. Maybe the danger of getting there had heightened the anticipation. Maybe it was just that this was France and we were on holiday and having a fabulous time. Anyway this particular crème brulée was lavender flavoured. And it was divine. I had a look and found two recipes - well there are lots more - but picked out two - for a lavender flavoured version. One was from Jamie Oliver, and the other was from The spruce eats. I think our version, being French, was served in a rather more traditional ramekin.
Simon Hopkinson seems to think, and also Felicity Cloake, that the French make their versions too sweet, although I do not remember this. But then maybe I have a sweet tooth:
"What I do know is that versions of it eaten in France are always too sweet. For me, the perfect crème brulée has very little sugar in the custard itself as the the intensely sweet caramel more than compensates." Simon Hopkinson
But these are the things that foodies argue about aren't they? How many eggs, whole eggs or just yolks, how much sugar, what kind of sugar, milk, cream, a mix of the two, cooked on top of the stove or in a bain marie in the oven? All points that some people get quite excited about and others just prefer. Pick and choose - do a Felicity Cloake and test them all out before deciding on your idea of perfection, for none of the versions are particularly difficult. Well there is the question of the blowtorch.
"even though I’ve grown brave enough to use my mini blowtorch, I still wince at the rasp of that knife-like jet of blue flame, holding it at a nervous arm’s length. If you can hold your nerve though, you can master maybe the only dessert where the making itself is as showstopping as the tasting: melt, bubble, burnish and burn the thick sugar crust of a creme brulee." Ruby Tandoh
I actually do have a blowtorch - bought from Aldi - who has everything you could possibly need in your kitchen - every now and then. And I have used it - twice. The first quite successfully, the second not quite as much. But it was scary and I don't think I would pick the dish up in my hands to do the torching. I think I failed the second time because I put on too much sugar - a chef in France told me that you shouldn't have too much. But that's another thing to argue over as well - how much and what kind of sugar - mostly they seem to think brown or demerera. Simon Bush of The Guardian who is cooking his way through some of Delia Smith's recipes says that Delia is a fan, although:
"Early models were too weak to be effective, but at the time of writing, Delia was hesitant to recommend one from a DIY shop, “envisaging hundreds of firefighters up and down the country taking me to task for recommending their use”
But if you're not game and you can't find a kitchen blowtorch then you can always do the caramelising under the grill. Just make sure your dish will stand up to the heat. You can focus on the sugar rather better with a blowtorch.
Delia Smith herself has eight recipes for Crème brulée, ranging from classic vanilla to rhubarb and ginger.
And that's the thing. There are literally thousands of recipes out there for variations on crème brulée and that doesn't include brulée toppings for a whole lot of other desserts. Even Elizabeth David, a purist if ever there was one, reports:
"I remember a cook of my childhood whose great dish was a crème brulée inn which the layer of glass-like caramel concealed , not the usual egg-thickened cream, but a delicate and softly frozen gooseberry fool."
SoI had a quick look and came up with various versions that stray to lesser and greater degree from the original: Let's begin with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who has a basic Foolproof crème brulée but who suggests varying it by adding either an apple or rhubarb compote to the base of your ramekin before adding your custard. Whilst we are on foolproof I should mention Ruby Tandoh's Bird's custard crème brulée - made with custard powder so not at all conventional. I wonder whether you could make it with prepared chilled custard from the supermarket. Why not? Ruby Tandoh also has a raspberry version and a version that doesn't use custard at all but uses mascarpone instead - Honey mascarpone crème brulée with forest fruits and raspberry crème brulée. delicious. has dozens of recipes you could try - for example Espresso martini crème brulée and Donna Hay who is thoroughly modern has one with chia seeds and one in which there is the brulée is a praline made with cashew nuts. Finally I had to see what Yotam Ottolenghi had, if anything - and sure enough he does: - Chai brulée tarts
But why did I say that crème caramel was English not French? That was the hook after all.
Well that's because many claim that the first appearance of crème brulée was at Trinity College in Cambridge, in around 1870, introduced by a student, later fellow of the college, from his humble home in Aberdeenshire. So Scottish then, not English after all. At Trinity - and elsewhere in England it is known as burnt cream. At Trinity College it is still served, stamped with the college crest, but even the college - on its website - says:
"The story that crème brûlée itself was invented at the College almost certainly has no basis in fact."
Jane Grigson actually found much earlier recipes dating back to 1769, because she felt that it was much more of an eighteenth century thing, and also vaguely French:
"custards made from eggs and cream were a European commonplace" at the time, so it would be pitifully jingoistic to try and claim the entire thing for Queen and country – but perhaps we might take the credit for the inspired addition of the caramel. Which, I think you'll agree, is what really makes the dish." Jane Grigson/Felicity Cloake
So French or English?
"This doubt is typical of much of our cooking. The French and English strands are interwoven from at least the time of the Conquest. The French influence became strong in the seventeenth century, in particular when Charles !! and his court returned from exile in Versailles, and again at the end of the eighteenth and during the nineteenth centuries when French chefs like Use, Carême, Soyer, Francatelli and Escoffier came to England to work." Jane Grigson
A tradition which continues to this day of course. And vice-versa.
But let's not stop there. What about crema catalana which is from Spain and dates back to the 14th century! I mean it's virtually the same thing isn't it?
"Some differences between crema catalana and crème brûlée include the cooking method and the resulting consistency; the French version is made with cream and flavoured with vanilla, while the Catalan version is made with milk, and typically flavoured with cinnamon and lemon zest. Modern versions are often thickened with cornflour." Wikipedia
I have not really visited Spain, but I have eaten crème Catalane in the Catalan part of France on the Spanish border. The main difference it seemed to me, other than that flavouring of lemon and cinnamon, which is, of course, significant, is that it was always served in a much flatter earthenware dish.
I suspect though that we all really think it's a classic French dish. Most cookbooks that purport to be about classic French food will generally have a recipe after all. But then again who cares? It's just delicious, so let's, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, just call it an all-time classic without specifying from whence it came.