Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Just Five Simple Ingredients
Aristotle wrote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” He might have been speaking of the combination of cream, vanilla, salt, eggs, and sugar—just five simple ingredients that make crème brûlée.
A Story of Pride and Pudding
Crème brûlée is a French dessert with several aliases—also known as burned cream, burnt cream, or Trinity cream, this egg-rich custard is dusted with sugar which is then torched just prior to serving. The application of heat immediately melts the sugar, turning it into a crisp caramel topping.
The origins of this treat are murky. François Massialot was a French chef of some prominence (he was the chef de cuisine to Philippe I, the Duke of Orléans at Versailles). He wasn’t timid when it came to advertising his genius; one would think that if he were the mastermind behind this dessert he would have stated as such in his 1691 cookbook Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois. So, is crème brûlée French?
Colin Spencer, author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History (Columbia University Press, 2002) wrote:
“Springtime, when cows were calving and producing an abundance of ultra-rich milk, was the season for ‘burnt cream,’ a sweetened pudding topped with sugar that’s been burnt with a hot iron.”
A few food historians (perhaps students of Cambridge) state that the first appearance of burnt cream was on the menu of Trinity College in 1879. And, as the story goes, the sugar on top was not simply caramelized—it was emblazoned by a branding iron with the school’s coat of arms. Oh, then perhaps it’s British?
Well, according to the Confectionary Guild of Barcelona, a recipe for “crema catalana” appeared in The Book of Sent Sovi: Medieval Recipes From Catalonia in the middle of the 14th century. One this is certain—egg custards were very popular in all of Europe. Let’s let everyone share in the accolades.
My First Experience of Crème Brûlée
My first taste of crème brûlée was at a French bistro, but I wasn’t in Paris. I didn’t need my passport; there was no trans-Atlantic flight (or jet lag). I was in my hometown of Steilacoom, Washington.
Steilacoom isn’t a major municipality; it isn’t even classified as an “outskirt” of a major metropolitan city. We are simply a town of plus or minus 6,000 souls. But in the heart of this place, in the downtown that stretches two blocks, there was a little French bistro, and on my birthday, they presented me with my first (and best) crème brûlée.
What arrived at my table was a small, palm-sized shallow white casserole dish. With the tap of a spoon, the burnt sugar topping shattered, revealing a luxuriously silky-smooth custard. And what a brilliant contrast of flavor and texture—sweet vanilla-scent juxtaposed with toasty, nutty flavors; crunchy vs. soft and creamy.
1. Classic Crème Brûlée
Our introductory recipe is for the classic crème brûlée. Veronika provides clear easy-to-follow instructions and photographs of each step, guiding you through the process of making a simple egg custard, baking them in a water bath, and then topping with that amazing caramelized granulated sugar. Keep in mind that this is not a dessert to whip up one hour before your guests arrive. The custard needs to be baked, cooled, and then chilled in the refrigerator for several hours (or overnight).
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2. Banana Crème Brûlée (Vegan)
Whenever possible, I try to include a vegetarian/vegan recipe for my friends who prefer a plant-based diet or have egg/dairy allergies. Hemp seeds stand in for eggs and, blended with non-dairy milk and cornstarch, create a luxuriously rich and creamy custard. If you like banana cream pie you will love this banana crème brûlée, even if you aren't vegan. Baking intensifies the sweet banana flavor.
3. Chocolate Crème Brûlée
Are you looking for a special-occasion dessert, something decadently rich, creamy, and chocolate? Chocolate crème brûlée is the answer. The flavor of dark chocolate is intensified with the addition of espresso powder and real vanilla bean.
4. Coconut Crème Brûlée
I've never been a huge fan of sweet desserts—my after-dinner desires lean more toward dark chocolate or perhaps a sampling from a cheese board. But I make an exception for coconut. This coconut crème brûlée is worth the time it takes to bake (and to type that French name with all those accent marks).
5. Key Lime Crème Brûlée
There's something about the clean, bright flavor of citrus that makes me think of springtime, Easter, Mother's Day, and happiness! This key lime creme brulee would be the perfect end-note for a brunch with family or friends.
6. Lavender Crème Brûlée
Lavender, a member of the mint family, is an old-world plant; its lush mounds of blue-purple blossoms can be found growing wild in the Canary Islands, across Europe, and throughout the Mediterranean, northern and eastern Africa, and southeast India.
You might think of it as an ornamental plant or the scent of your grandmother's perfume, but lavender can also be used in cooking and baking. In this lavender crème brûlée dried blossoms infuse the heavy cream with their floral taste and aroma.
7. Pumpkin Crème Brûlée
When the warmth of summer is replaced with dampness and darkness, when flowers fade, when the evenings grow longer, you know that autumn has arrived. I have a dear friend who adores the color of the leaves, the crispness of the air, harvest time, and all things autumnal. I would prefer to hibernate and awaken in the spring.
For me, one thing that can make this time of year almost bearable is canned pumpkin. Canned pumpkin baked into pumpkin crème brûlée is even better.
8. Salted Butterscotch Crème Brûlée
A restrained dusting of flaky sea salt lends depth to this rich butterscotch custard and keeps it from entering the too-sweet territory. This recipe for salted butterscotch crème brûlée comes from the test kitchen of Fine Cooking magazine.
9. Tuxedo Crème Brûlée
Tuxedo crème brûlée is so-named because it's "black and white." A dark chocolate ganache is poured into the bottom of each ramekin and then covered with a silky smooth custard filling.
10. White Chocolate Crème Brûlée
I chose this white chocolate crème brûlée as our final dessert not only because "W" places it near the end of the listing alphabetically, but because this recipe can be adapted to suit your tastes. You can prepare as a simple (but luxurious) white chocolate custard, or stir in any number of flavorings; might I suggest blueberries, grated lemon zest, raspberries, or even chopped macadamia nuts as a few of the possibilities?
© 2021 Linda Lum