When it comes to crème brlûée, history of this delicious dessert is complicated and hotly debated. England, Spain and France all claim to have created the first version of crème brlûée. Food historians generally agree however, that custards were popular in the Middle Ages and recipes for custards circulated widely through Europe. Custards were so popular that it's almost impossible to trace specific roots as to where it began. The question then becomes, who was the first to caramelize the sugar on top and to serve it as a dessert?
England's Part of Crème Brlûée History
Sometime during the 17th century, young college student offered the kitchen a culinary delight: a creamy unsweetened custard with a caramelized topping. However, the college student's creation was spurned by the cooking staff. . .until he became a fellow. It was after his fellowship that the cooking staff suddenly took great interest in his custard creation with the burnt topping. After replicating the recipe, the cooking staff dubbed it "Trinity Burnt Cream" and all the world emulates this delectable dish. Or so the tall tale goes.
While it really cannot be proven (and in fact many doubt the story at all) that Trinity College in Cambridge had anything to do with inventing the sublime treat, the kitchens there are well known for making and serving their version of crème brlûée quite often. The kitchen actually possesses an iron with the college crest that is used specifically for making the burnt topping.
Another sticking point to this story is that Brits will vehemently deny that Trinity Brunt Cream and Crème brlûée are at all even a related dish. While the French version is very sweet, British Trinity Cream is unsweetened. . .and the topping is thicker and crustier.
Crema Catalana: Spain's Claim to Crème Brlûée History
The Spanish claim that their version of crema catalana is the true predecessor of crème brlûée and that they invented it in the 18th century (a full 100 years after England's claim to custard supremacy). However, creama catalana is not baked in a bain marie, as crème brlûée is. It is also generally served as a cold custard with a hot topping. Crema catalana is served on Saint Joseph's Day (March 19th). Whether or not it is the true predecessor of crème brlûée as it is known today, or rather simply a variation of custard that had been around for hundreds of years. . .no one truly knows.
Most people assume that crème brlûée is a French dish. After all, the name is French. However, the name crème brlûée didn't become popular until the 19th century. Chances are that crème brlûée is simply another version of a custard that was passed around through the Middle Ages. Due to its popularity, it's almost impossible to trace exact roots to a specific country or origin.
The French version of crème brlûée is generally served cold and is cooked in a shallow pan of water. The custard top is traditionally caramelized by a special kitchen blow torch.
Variations on Today's Crème Brlûée
In many ways, crème brlûée is a timeless classic. From its early predecessor of the sweet custards of the Middle Ages, to the constant variations of today this popular dessert can be modified in many ways.
Flavoring the Custard
The standard variation on a crème brlûée is how sweet the custard is. The French tend to add much sugar while other versions require a flavoring of vanilla. However, there are a variety of variations on custard flavoring:
- Zest of a citrus fruit is a popular variation, typically added to a sweeter custard.
- Vanilla bean, cocoa, or even coconut extract have their place in a less traditional crème brlûée.
- Fresh fruit is a sometimes welcome addition to a typically heavy dish.
- Liqueur flavorings are added to the custard.
- Bittersweet chocolate is sometimes added to the top of custard right before the sugar topping is added.
The basic definition of a crème brlûée demands that the topping be some sort of caramelized sugar. However, the type of topping and the way in which it gets caramelized can vary greatly depending on the chef and style cooking.
- Sometimes liquor is adding to the topping and lit on fire for a dramatic presentation.
- Special kitchen blow torches that are designed for making crème brlûée, can be used to torch just the top of the dessert in its individual ramekin.
- Some variations called for the topping to be broiled after the custard is cooked. This is handy to do if you don't have a kitchen torch.
The world may never know the true version of crème brlûée history. However, everyone can agree that this delectable dessert deserves a worthy place in cookbooks everywhere.