Crème brûlée: a masterful invention from the French

We usually call it custard, and it’s a treat for any time of day.

Ian Leatt Foodie
Ian Leatt
Foodie

It all started with Francois Massialot’s 1691 recipe book. It brought the birth of crème brûlée, though in 1731, in a successor book, entitled Cuisinier roial et bourgeois, Massialot changed the name of his own recipe from crème brûlée to “crème anglaise”.

In the early 18th century in England it was even called “burnt cream”, developing into “trinity cream”.

No matter how one puts this custard together, however, it is so light that you are ready to eat it at any time of the day. And it is fun to make, no matter how it is presented.

Custard is made-up of eggs, cream, milk and sugar (or salt). From apple pie and custard to crème caramel to simple bread and butter pudding, it is enjoyed by millions, though a great number of people probably don’t realize that it’s custard they’re eating. I still hanker for it.

Ingredients
2 cups of whipping cream (36 per cent)
½ cup of 3 per cent milk
1 vanilla pod
5 large egg yolks
1/8 cup of fine sugar (confectioners),
plus extra sugar for topping
1 teaspoon of mixed spice
1 carton fresh cleaned raspberries

Method
Place the egg yolks and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk for 1 minute or until the mixture becomes paler in colour and a bit fluffy. Pour the carton of cream into a non-stick pan with the milk. Lay the vanilla pod on a chopping board and slice lengthways through the middle with a sharp knife to split it in two. Use the tip of the knife to scrape out all the tiny seeds and add to the cream mixture. Drop the vanilla pod in as well. Then put the pan with the cream on a burner at medium heat and bring almost to a boil. As soon as bubbles appear around the edge of the pan, remove from the heat.

Pour the hot cream into the beaten egg yolks, mixing with a wire whisk as you pour. Place a sieve over a large, wide-mouthed jug or bowl and pour the hot mixture through, straining it. Using a big spoon, scoop off all the pale foam that forms on the top of the liquid (this could be several spoonfuls) and discard. Give the mixture a final stir.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Sit four ramekins in a deep roasting tin at least 7.5 cm deep (or a large, deep cake tin). The tin must be deep enough to support a baking sheet well above the ramekins when the baking sheet is laid across its top.

Pour in enough hot water (from the tap is fine) into the roasting tin to come almost half way up the side of the ramekins. Pour the hot cream mixture into the ramekins, filling them to the top.

Put the tin with the ramekins in the heated oven and lay a baking sheet over the top of the tin so it sits well above the ramekins but completely covers them. Leave a small gap at one side of the tin to allow air to circulate. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the mixture is softly set. To check, gently sway the roasting tin. If the crème brûlées are ready, they will wobble a bit in the middle like a jelly. Don’t let them get too firm. Remove from the oven.

Lift the ramekins out of the roasting tin with oven gloves and set them on a wire rack to cool for a couple of minutes only, then put in the fridge to cool completely. This can be done over night without affecting the texture.

When ready to serve, wipe round the top edge of the dishes, sprinkle some fine sugar and mixed spice over each ramekin and spread it out with the back of a spoon to completely cover. Spray with a little water; use a fine spray to just dampen the sugar, then use a blow torch to caramelize it. Hold the flame just above the sugar and keep moving it round and round until the sugar is caramelized.

Serve when the brûlée is firm, within an hour or two, after placing a few raspberries in the crème brûlée and on top, as well as at the side. Add a sprig or two of mint.

Ian Leatt is general manager of Pegasus Publications and an experienced professional chef.

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