What is the origin of crème brûlée?
I have come to realize custard is one of those love/hate things. I LOVE custard. My Grandma made me custard often and I really enjoyed it hot out of the oven, though I know you're supposed to cool it... ya right, good luck with that. Plus, aside from time, I just prefer it warm. So of course when I was introduced to crème brûlée, I'm like, oh custard with crystalized sugar... I suppose. DUH!
Most might assume that crème brûlée is a product of French cuisine... hello, the name itself means “burnt cream” in French! But as it turns out, France is only one of several European countries claiming they came up with the coveted crème brûlée.
First up, France. With such a respected culinary scene, it makes sense that something as delicious as crème brûlée would come from there—and likely did. The first mention of the dessert is in a 1691 cookbook, “Cuisinier royal et bourgeois,” by François Massialot, a respected French chef.
So if crème brûlée was first introduced, formally, by the French more than 300 years ago, why are there still questions as to its identity? The problem lies in the historical penchant for custard, like the one you find under the sugary crust of your crème brûlée. Even if historical custards, enjoyed in medieval times, were not quite the same as the modern crème brûlée, it’s easy to see how several countries could—independently of one another—create quite a similar dish and call it their own.
Take, for example, Crema Catalana, the Spanish take on a quite similar dish. Legend has it that nuns were preparing flan, a traditional Spanish dessert, for a bishop… only to undercook the flan, leading to a custardy consistency, and trying to mend their creation with a touch of sugar on top, which interacted with the heat and created an unusual crust effect. Sound familiar?
Then there is the claim of England’s Trinity College. There, in the late 1800s, the college-branded its school arms onto custard desserts for the students, leading to what is now dubbed Trinity cream, or Trinity burnt cream. But, this was after 1691... so they're out as far as I'm concerned.
Perhaps the dessert lacks an official identity because, until recent years, no one was rushing to claim it! It was not viewed as a mainstream dessert (at least, not a particularly famous one) until it got the modern treatment and became a favorite in the United States in the 1980s.
The one figure who helped to bring crème brûlée to the mainstream—even before it was a mega-hit among restaurants the world over—was “The French Chef” herself, Julia Child. The avid culinary and cultural figure showed American audiences the art of making a crème brûlée on her TV show, an early predecessor to today’s popular cooking programs. From her program on the subject, we gained a bit more understanding of what a crème brûlée was—and one choice quote, too, “everyone should have a blowtorch in the kitchen,” referencing the tool that’s used to give the crème brûlée its warm, crispy crust. For her part, Child’s own blowtorch (and her entire kitchen setup) can be seen, on display, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
I think my favorite crème brûlée was the pistachio crème brûlée I had at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. Do you have a favorite?