On the Origins of Crème Brûlée

Crème brûlée is one of those less-is-more desserts that really shines when it’s done well. Like its name implies, crème brûlée is a French dish, dating to at least the early 1690’s (though similar sweet custards were common in England and in Spain around the same time). It was first written down in French by chef François Massialot in 1691 in a book called Le Cuisinier royal et bourgeois (essentially “royal and bourgeois cuisine”). The title itself is notable, since chefs of Massialot’s ability were almost always bound to one noble court or another. The fact that he wrote a book on noble and middle class cookery suggests he was some sort of proto chef-for-hire. An almost unheard of thing for the time.

The words literally mean “burnt cream” or “burnt custard” (“crème” can mean either one in French as I understand it). The “brûlée” of course refers to the fact that a thin layer of sugar is caramelized on top of the custard just before it’s served, giving it a terrific, crunchy texture contrast. Just how is that caramelization achieved? By any one of three methods, but between you and me, I’d start shopping for blowtorches now.

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