We live in an age of culinary overkill. Our waffles come stacked to the moon with toppings. Our tacos are stuffed with burritos stuffed with nachos. As exhausted as we get by our own over-abundance, it’s easy to get lulled into the assumption that every food that came before our time was by definition a study in simplicity. Not so.
Take crème brûlée. Many of us recoil — and many of you folks out there did — at the notion of putting ingredients like whole fruits or peanut butter into the mix. Since I love an ultra-simple crème brûlée, I’m in broad agreement. However it’s interesting to take a look at some of the early recipes for this particular dish. They paint a picture of a custard that could practically be mistaken for a fruitcake. This one is from Massialot himself, from the 1705 edition of his Nouveau Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois:
Orange peel/Lemon peel/pistachioes/almonds
Orange blossom water
Take four or five egg yolks, depending on the size of your dish or plate. Mix them well in a pot, with a good pinch of flour, and bit by bit pour in milk, about a pint. Put in a little cinnamon stick, and chopped lime peel, and other preserves. One can also add orange peel, or lemon; and it is called Crême brulée à l’Orange. To make it tastier, one can mix in peeled pistachios, or almonds, with a drop of orange blossom water.
Put it on a lit stove, & keep stirring it, watching that your Cream not stick to the bottom. When it is well-cooked, put a dish or a plate on a lit stove; & having poured the cream into it cook it some more, until you see it sticking to the side of the dish. Then, take it off & sugar it well on top, besides the sugar one puts in it. Take the fire shovel, red hot, & at the same time burn the Cream, so that it takes on a nice golden color. As a garnish, use feuillantine, little fleurons or meringue or other pieces of crispy paste. Glaze your cream, if you want; otherwise serve it without that, always as an entremets.
So, not only was Massialot’s crême brulée often brimming with candied fruits and nuts, it was adorned with pastry flourishes (that’s what “feuillantine” and “fleurons” are). I’m sure it all made for quite a presentation. However it makes for an interesting study in the principle of “less-is-more.” Very often, more is actually more.
(Hat tip — as usual — to Jim Chevallier.)