Crème de la Crème

The origins of the world’s most popular custard dessert

By Gabriella Gershenson

Published on July 2, 2012

I still remember the first time I tasted creme brulee. I was 17 years old, and my parents had taken my sister and me on our first trip to Paris. We were budget-dining types, but there was one splurge—dinner at Fauchon, the gourmet food emporium, where our meal ended with creme brulee. What arrived was delicate custard in a shallow fluted casserole, topped with a sheet of burnt sugar. A firm rap with the back of the spoon and the crust shattered beautifully. Then, the soft custard yielded with almost obscene ease. What sublime contrast: Each bite, crunchy and smooth, toasty and lush, was a revelation.

For as long as I can remember, creme brulee has been a classic, so I assumed it always had been. I also figured it must be French—the name, after all, is French for "burnt cream." Yet last year, when I met the pastry chef Pierre Herme, who was the head patissier at Fauchon for 11 years, I was surprised to hear him say that he first experienced the dessert not in France, but in New York City, at the legendary restaurant Le Cirque, in the 1980s.

Intrigued, I dug a little deeper and found that the precise origins of the dish are murky. Examples of a similar dessert appeared as far back as the 15th century in England, according to Colin Spencer, author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History (Columbia University Press, 2002). Spencer writes that springtime, when cows were calving and producing an abundance of ultrarich milk, was the season for "burnt cream," a sweetened pudding "topped with sugar that's been burnt with a hot iron." The first printed recipe for a dessert called creme brulee is from the 1691 edition of the French cookbook Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois, by Francois Massialot, who cooked at Versailles. That version—a sweet custard of egg yolks and milk with a burnt sugar crust—doesn't differ significantly from today's. And then in Spain there is crema catalana, custard topped with caramelized sugar, which dates at least as far back as medieval times.

It's from the Spanish dessert that the owner of Le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni, says he took his inspiration for the creme brulee that kicked off the current global trend. After an encounter with crema catalana in Spain in the early '80s, Maccioni insisted a version be developed for his menu. The Le Cirque pastry chef at the time, Dieter Schorner, put his own spin on the custard, cooking it in the shallow fluted casserole. The sugar shell got thinner, too, and the name was Gallicized to fit in at the French restaurant. "When Paul Bocuse visited Sirio Maccioni, he loved it so much that he declared it the best dessert he had eaten that year," Schorner told me. "Then of course it became popular also in France, where it hadn't been popular at all."

Interestingly, creme brulee has a history in the United States that predates Le Cirque. There are records of Thomas Jefferson serving it at the White House, and recipes for it appeared in cookbooks and magazines all through the 1950s and early '60s. By 1970, though, James Beard lamented in a Los Angeles Times article that "in America we went through a great creme brulee period a number of years ago and I wish we would again." Barely a decade later, Beard got his wish. Le Cirque's creme brulee launched a thousand copycats, and it's now a restaurant staple, with variations ranging from fresh mint to pumpkin to foie gras.

Creme brulee seems like it should be easy to make—simply a mixture of vanilla-infused cream, egg yolks, and sugar, with more sugar on top. But it requires finesse. The difference between a silky custard and a curdled one is only a few degrees—overcooked eggs are the bane of the creme brulee cook—but there are several safeguards one can take. Cooking it gently in a water bath, whose temperature never exceeds 212 degrees, ensures the right smooth and luscious texture. Once the custard has set, it should be thoroughly chilled to protect against further cooking during caramelization. The preferred tool is a blowtorch, as it melts the sugar quickly without heating the custard underneath it.

In recent years, creme brulee's popularity has transcended the dessert itself. Now there's creme brulee ice cream, creme brulee—flavored coffee, and creme brulee—covered almonds, not to mention creme brulee cheesecake, French toast, doughnuts, pancakes, and cupcakes. But I feel that the classic version, when done correctly, is hard to improve upon.

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