How can you resist the pleasure of breaking a thin layer of crunchy caramel to discover the vanilla delicacy of a French creme brulee?
With very similar ingredients and preparation to a custard but much less dense, creme brulee is thus crowned with a layer of deliciously crunchy caramelized sugar.
What is the origin of creme brulee?
Although the origin of the creme brulee remains unclear, it is very close to the Catalan cream (crema catalana in Catalan), a dessert consisting of a thick cream composed of cornstarch that is used a lot in Catalan cuisine. Perfumed with lemon zest and cinnamon, it is served with a layer of burnt white sugar, this caramelization is close to the creme brulee.
In the past, the Catalan cream was called crema quemada (creme brulee) or crema de San Jose (cream of Saint Joseph). Indeed, the tradition in Catalonia was to serve it on the day of this saint, on March 19th, at the eve of spring and this since the seventeenth century. But the first known recipe for crema catalana appeared in Llibre de Sent Soví, a 14th century Catalan cookbook.
It is very easy to confuse creme brulee with crema catalana. However, the main difference lies in the fact that the creme brulee is cooked and includes cream among its ingredients without any kind of starch, while the Catalan cream is prepared only with whole milk. In addition, the Catalan cream is cooked on the stove while the creme brulee is baked.
Let’s go back to France: The first historical record of this cream dates from the end of the 17th century, when François Massialot, a chef at the Château de Versailles, wrote about the recipe in his book Le Nouveau Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois. A story however tells that this chef was inspired by the Catalan cream when he created this dessert, and that is why the origin of the creme brulee is still discussed today.
In fact, in 1691, François Massialot, in Perpignan, notes the interesting recipes of the regions that he travels through, including that of the crema catalana. To warm up a cold cream served to the young Philippe d’Orléans, the future Regent, he used an iron on top of the sugar so the sugar caramelized. He had just invented creme brulee. He therefore delivered the recipe in the bestseller cited above Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois.
England has also claimed the paternity of this popular dessert. There is another story that creme brulee was invented at Trinity College in Cambridge.
Apparently, a cream called trinity cream or Cambridge burnt cream, was put on the menu of Trinity College in 1879. The college literally put its mark on it. Indeed, the caramelized sugar layer was engraved with the arms of the college with the help of a hot iron. The English insist that they have made it an unmistakably British dessert today.
How to make creme brulee
Composed of egg yolks, whole milk, heavy cream, sugar and vanilla, it is first prepared on the stove before being baked in an oven.
Once cooled, the top is caramelized with sugar, with the help of a torch. It is served, warm or cold, in ramekins, with a crust on the warm and crispy top.
Modern versions of the creme brulee
For lactose intolerant or vegans, creme brulee can be prepared with soy milk or coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. The cream can be replaced with soy cream.
Although in the original recipe, vanilla is the only flavor, it is now often prepared with black tea, maple syrup, gingerbread, saffron, coffee, fruits (often berries), tomato, foie gras, lavender. Also think of cardamom, lemongrass, lemon balm, or licorice.
A tip to obtain a delicious creme brulee is to add a drop of rum or cognac, in addition to vanilla, but just enough to delicately scent the cream.
What are set custards?
Creme brulee, like many other creams fall into the category of set custards.
A set custards refers to a liquid bound by proteins (eggs among others). This mixture can be sweet or savory. It therefore consists of eggs (whole, yolk or white), liquid (milk and/or cream), and sugar for the sweet mixtures. It can then be flavors in different ways.
When you cook a mixture of eggs, milk, and sugar, you get a cream that is served cold. It may be liquid like standard cream custard, or set, like all dessert creams.
The chemistry of a set custard is simple: the dairy liquid (cream and/or milk) is coagulated thanks to the proteins of the eggs. Depending on whether the eggs are used whole or not, the texture varies.
With egg yolks exclusively, it is very melting but the creams can not be unmolded and are served in the cooking vessel.
With egg whites only or whole eggs, the creams are firmer and can be removed from the mold.
Note that the undiluted egg yolk coagulates at 160 F, and coagulates around 180 F when diluted in a liquid. The egg white coagulates at a low temperature: less than 150 F. As for creamy custards, they also include cornstarch, in addition or as a substitute for eggs. Their texture is creamier.
What are the main variants of set cream?
Sweet set custards
– The eggs with milk: whole eggs + milk + sugar, that are baked and consumed directly in the cooking vessel. This is the basic recipe of set custards. They are prepared by pouring sweetened and vanilla-scented boiling milk on beaten eggs. The mixture is then poured into a dish or ramekins and then baked, sometimes in a bain-marie.
– The crème renversée also called crème caramel or flan: caramel + milk eggs, that is baked and consumed after being unmolded. When the caramel is poured into the bottom of a mold before the cream and the eggs are unmolded, it is called a crème renversée.
– Crema catalana and creme brulee are obviously part of the list of set custards.
Savory set custards
– Based on egg yolks: the mixture, supplemented with an ingredient that will perfume it (porcini mushrooms, foie gras, etc). It will be molded in the serving container, then will be baked gently (no more than 210 F in the oven) and served in this same container. In this family, you will find savory creme brulees.
– Whole eggs: the proportion of whole eggs and yolks depends on the preparations. This family includes quiches, pies, flans and crèmes renversées.
Today, I am sharing the recipe for my favorite dessert; I followed the recipe of our culinary expert Chef Simon. And I can only agree with Amélie Poulain: “one of the pleasures of life is to break the caramelized sugar crust of the creme brulee with the back of a teaspoon”.
A pleasure so simple and yet so delicious!
This recipe is validated by our culinary expert in French cuisine, Chef Simon. You can find Chef Simon on his website Chef Simon – Le Plaisir de Cuisiner.
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 vanilla pod , split lengthwise and scraped
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- Pour the milk, heavy cream and vanilla in a non-stick pan, bring to a boil and let stand for 10 minutes.
Preheat the convection oven to 265 F (or 290 F for a conventional oven).
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar.
- Pour half of the mixture of milk and warm cream over the sugar mixture.
- Whisk while avoiding over-beating to avoid foaming, and pour the remaining milk and cream mixture. Continue to whisk to incorporate.
- Pour the crème brulée in ramekins placed on a baking tray.
Place the crèmes brûlées in the oven, and lower the convection oven temperature to 230 F (or 250 F for a conventional oven).
- Bake for 35 minutes.
- The texture must be fragile and very creamy. Let cool.
- When lukewarm, spread 1 tablespoon of brown sugar per crème brûlée for the caramelization.
- Caramelize with a blowtorch.