An all-time favourite from the seventeenth century
Crème brûlée is one of the most popular desserts. That probably has to do with the titillating contrast between the cold, creamy custard and the hard, hot layer of burned sugar. This dish should be prepared with care, because it can easily turn out wrong. So please read the notes with the recipe!
The origin of crème brûlée
The very first recipes for crème brûlée date from theseventeenth century. Whether its origins are French, English (see bibliography) or Spanish (yes, the Crema Catalana!) is unclear. Sabban and Serventi (see bibliography) are inclined to seek the origins in Spain.
However, I liked this French recipe, because you get “two for the price of one” (you notice I’m Dutch?): a beautiful soft yellow coloured custard with orange, and a pastel green coloured custard with lime.
Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois of François Massialot
The recipe is taken from a French cookbook that was written by Massialot at the end of the seventeenth century.
François Massialot was born in Limoges in 1660 and died in Paris in 1733. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton (zie bibliografie) suspects he was not in service, but an independent cook who was hired for special occasions. He has prepared meals for Monsieur (Philippe, duke of Orleans, brother of Louis the fourteenth), Madame (princess Liselotte, wife of Monsieur), the Dauphin, and several dukes and marquesses. So it would be safe to say he was quite successful.
Massialot has produced two cookbooks: Le Cuisinier royal et bourgeois […], first printed anonymously in 1691, which has seen many (extended) reprints up to the middle of the eighteenth century (from 1712 onward as Le nouveau cuisinier royal et bourgeois […]) , and the Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liquers et les fruits […] from 1692, also reprinted several times in the eighteenth century. The picture above of the table with sweets is from this book.
Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois consists of two parts: in the first part there is a description of menu’s for a whole year. Many of these menu’s have been prepared at court (dates and hosts are mentioned). The second part is the actual cookbook. This is the first cookbook in which the recipes are alphabetically ordered to the chief ingredient, often with variations for flesh- and fishdays. Another first in this book is two recipes in which chocolate is an ingredient: in a sauce for wigeon or scoter, and in a sweet custard. Until then chocolate was consumed solely as a drink.
Crème brûlée in the menu of the seventeenth century
When I adapted this page in Febrary 2018 for the new design of Coquinaria, I looked up the recipe in the original cookbook. In 2005 I relied on the edition of this recipe in La gastronomie du Grand Siècle by Sabban and Serventi (see bibliography), but now I discovered that they have left out the conclusion of the recipe. Moreover, they put the recipe in the chapter ‘fruit et desserts’, but from the menu’s published by Massialot the context in which crème brûlée was served was different. It was part of the second service (second course) of a meal, as a hors d’oeuvre. Nowadays these are served before a meal, but then they stood in the outside of larger dishes on the table during the meal. Crème brûlée was served together with, for example, apple friiters, mushrooms in cream, truffles, bread stuffed with ham and sauce, three different dishes with artichokes and a salad of asparagus. The larger dishes contained game, pheasants and other game birds, sweet and savoury pies and pasties, and omelettes with ham. The last course, called les fruits, is not described by Massialot because that was part of l’office or cold kitchen that falls under a different manage,ment. L’office is the subject of his other cookbook, the Nouvelle instruction […]. Crème brûlée is mentioned in several other menus, in May and August it is also a hors’d’oeuvre in the second course, and in April it is an entremet (side dish) for a simple meal, together with sweetbread, foie gras, asparagus and again bread stuffed with ham.
The original recipe
Originally I used the recipe as it appeared in La gastronomie au Grand Siècle. 100 recettes de France et d’Italie, F. Sabban and S. Serventi. But when I transferred the page to the new design, I used the text from Massialot’s edition from 1691. (see bibliography)
Il faut prendre quatre ou cinq jaunes d’oeufs, selon la grandeur de vôtre plat ou assiette. Vous les délaierez bien dans une casserole, avec bonne pincée de farine; & peu à peu vous y verserez du lait, environ une chopine. Il y faut mettre un peu de canelle en bâton, & de l’écorce de citron verd haché, & d’autre confit. On y peut aussi hacher de l’écorce d’orange comme celle de citron; & alors on l’apelle Crème brûlée à l’Orange. Pour la faire plus délicate, on y peut mêler des pistaches pilées, ou des amandes, avec une goutte d’eau de fleur d’orange. Il faut aller sur le fourneau allumé, & là toûjours remuer, prenant garde que vôtre Crême ne s’attache pas au fond. Quand elle sera bien cuite, mettez un plat ou une assiette sur un fourneau allumé; & aiant versé la Crême dedans, faites-la cuire encore, jusqu’`a ce que vous voiez qu’elle s’attache au bord du plat. Alors il la faut tirer en arriere, & la bien sucrer par-dessus, outre le sucre que l’on y met dedans: on prend la pêle du feu, bien rouge; & du même-tems on en brûle la Crême, afin qu’elle prenne une belle couleur d’or.
Pour garniture, servez-vous de feüillantine, de petits fleurons, ou meringues, ou autres découpûres de pâte croquante. Glacez vôtre Crême, si vous voulez; sinon servez sans cela, toûjours pour Entremets.
Take four or five egg yolks, depending on the size of your plate or dish. Stir them well in a casserole with some flour. Pour the milk in it a little at a time, about 4,5 decilitres. Add a stick of cinnamon, and the chopped peel of limes, and other candied fruits. You can also use chopped peel of orange instead of lime. Then it is called “Crème brûlée à l’orange”. To make it even more delicate one can add peeled ppistachio nuts, or almonds, with a drop of orange blossom water. Put it on the lit burner and stir continually, always looking that your crème does not stick to the bottom. When the crème is done, put a plate or dish on a lit burner , pour the crème in it, and let it simmer until you see that it sticks to the plate or dish. Pull [the dish] to the back (where the heat is lower), and sprinkle liberally sugar on top, apart from the sugar that is [already] in it. Take the fire shovel, red-hot, and burn the crème with it at once, so that it will acquire a nice golden colour.
Massialot combines two recipes into one: crème brûlée au citron vert and crème brulé à l’orange. I have prepared both recipes. In the original recipe, the custards are enriched with candied fruit. Following the adaptation of Sabban and Serventi, I have chosen for fresh citrus peel only. The candied fruit was too rich for my taste.
Pitfalls in preparing crème brûlée
For people with limited experience in cooking there may arise some difficulties in preparing these dishes. The thickening of sauces with raw egg yolks is one of them, the other is the burning of sugar. Please read this first before starting on the recipe.
See the notes for how to thicken a sauce with egg yolks.
There are several ways to caramelize the sugar layer. I have tried all methods described below, the third method was most to my liking. The best result was with letting the custard cool without covering it up, in order to let the surface dry. Do not sprinkle with sugar until just before burning the sugar, and serve as soon as that is done. Otherwise the burnt sugar will absorb moisture from the crème and become soft.
- Under the built-in grill of an electric oven. When burning the sugar under a grill, the custard heats up too. I like it best when the custard is still at room temperature or cold. (but that is a personal preference)
- With a searing iron that is part of a set of dishes for “crema catalana”. Using a searing iron is laborious, especially when there are more dishes to be done. The iron needs to be reheated every so often. That takes a lot of time.
- With a gas jet (blow torch). The sugar caramelizes quickly while the crème remains cold, and you can prepare as many dishes as you want to (until you run out of gas). See the notes on how to use a blow torch in the kitchen.
Dessert for 4 persons; preparation in advance 20 minutes + cooling; preparation 10 minutes.
5 dl (2 cups) milk
5 egg yolks
4 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp flour
1 cinnamon stick
enough (icing) sugar to cover the crème
Preparation in advance
Basis – Break the cinnamon stick in smaller pieces. Bring the milk to the boil with the stick of cinnamon. Temper the heat when the milk starts to boil, Strain the milk.
Flavours – Mix the egg yolks with flour and sugar, orange blossom water, and either ground almonds and orange peel for the orange crème or ground pistachio nuts and lime peel for the lime crème. Now pay attention: to thicken a hot liquid with raw egg yolks can be tricky if one has never done it before. Below you can read detailed instructions.
Once having tempered the eggs according to the instructions, add the egg-mixture to the milk in the pan, or in the bowl if you prefer the au bain marie method. Now keep stirring until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of custard. If you stop now, that is exactly what you have prepared: custard! Because crème brûlée is nothing else than custard with a layer of caramellized sugar on top.
Pour the mixture at once into a large shallow dish, or in individual small shallow dishes, and let the custard cool without any covering to room temperature. If you do this several hours in advance before serving, place the dish(es) in the refrigerator when they are completely cold. The top-layer must be slightly dried to obtain a nice crisp layer of caramelized sugar. However, when this dish is served as custard it is best to cover the crème with kitchen foil during cooling.
Preheat the built-in grill in the oven, heat your fire-shovel, or pick up your gas jet (blow torch) . Sprinkle the as yet ‘unburned’ crème with a thin layer of sugar. Take care that the whoile surface is covered, because the crème itself will burn where there is no sugar. Place the dishes under the grill, apply your fire-shovel, or use the blow torch (see the picture).
The crème brûlée has to be served as quickly as possible, because the the hard layer of caramelized sugar will turn soft again when it absorbs moisture from the crème underneath. And what is the most appealing of this recipe is the contrast between the crisp, hard layer of sugar and the soft creamy custard. My tasters were divided as to which crème was the favourite. The majority voted for the orange crème, but the lime crème was not without admirers.
Massialot served the crème brûlée with cripsy (sweet) cookies, an excellent combination. He mentions feuillantine and other cookies from puff pastry, meringues, and pâte croquante, a recipe from massialot which I hope to publish shortly.
Just follow the rules:
Rule 1: The liquid that has to be thickened by the yolks must not cook. When that does happen, the egg yolks will form unattractive flakes instead of emulsifying with the sauce. So: keep the heat low, or prepare the sauce “au bain marie” (just place a bowl of heat-conducive material in a wider pan filled with water that is kept almost boiling. This prevents the contents of the bowl to ever reach the boiling point).
Rule 2: Do NOT pour the egg yolks into the hot liquid. They would clot immediately. The yolks must gently get used to the higher temperature, by adding one tablespoon of the warm liquid to the yolks, whilst stirring well. Add some more, keep stirring, and continue adding the liquid in small amounts until the egg yolks have reached almost the temperature of the liquid in the pan. Now you can pour the heated yolks to the liquid in the pan (or the bowl if you continue “au bain marie”). Whilst pouring you have to keep stirring in the pan, to be sure that the yolks and the liquid blend without clotting.
Rule 3: If you cook an egg, it takes a while for it to be ready. It is the same with the thickening of sauces with egg yolks: it needs time. So you have to be patient and keep stirring. This can take up to fifteen minutes or more. You must stir well, scrape across the bottom and the sides of the pan/bowl to prevent clotting of the custard. Use a wooden spoon or a whisk with an isolated grip, or you will burn your hands. You can also use an electric mixer. If you do that, the heat can be turned up a little, because the sauce will be stirred vigorously, and will be ready all the sooner. But keep scraping the bottom and sides of the pan/bowl.
When the sauce or custard is thickened to your liking, remove it immediately from the heatsource, and pour it in a serving dish or individual dishes, because once you stop stirring, the contents of the pan will stick to the bottom and sides because the pan is still hot.
It’s great fun, using a blow torch in the kitchen, one can feel really tough! There are elegant blow torches that are made especially for use in the kitchen, but a lot of those are not powerful enough. They are filled from a can with gas for cigarette lighters. Just go to a hardware store and buy a real blow torch.
Always be careful when working with fire, even if it’s a small blow torch. Take care that there is nothing inflammable in the vicinity of where you want to caramelize the custards. And don’t use it on your antique wooden table! Keep children away, a blow torch is not a toy. Take care that the flame of the burner is directed at free space when it is lit, just in case the first flame is strong. When you are done, check and double-check that you have closed off the gas. Store the blow torch somewhere children can’t reach.
The stove as we know it was not used in the seventeenth century. There was no electricity or gas. In the Middle Ages meals were prepared on open heat sources. The cook could place pots, pans, grids and roasting-spits nearer the heat source, or further away. At the end of the Middle Ages the hearth was raised to knee- or table-height, with enough room for several heat sources from soaring heat to a low simmer. The raised block was also used to place dishes on (see picture on the left).
In the seventeenth century the stove build from bricks comes into being: these were especially handy for simmering on a low fire. A stove could have one or more burning holes. The Dutch cookbook De verstandige kock (1667) provides instructions on how to build your own stove. In the furnace block there are one ore more conic-shaped holes in which the fire burns. Near the bottom there is a grate for the fire, at the top where the hole is at its widest there are iron knobs on which the pots or pans are placed. In the side of the stove are vent-holes that also provide access to remove the ashes (see picture on the right). Cast-iron stoves date from the nineteenth century.
See Citrus Fruit.
This is made with the flowers of the bigarade or Seville oranges. It originates in the Middle East where it was used to flavour syrups and dishes. In Europe it was first used to perfume bed linen, but by the seventeenth century it was also popular as food flavouring.
The editions below were used by me. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on Coquinaria
- François Massialot, Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois (1691, 1 volume). Facsimile editions of Le nouveau cuisinier royal et bourgeois in 3 vols from 1748.
- Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (Touchstone, 1996) As E-book .
- Livres en bouche. Cinq siècles d’arts culinaires français (Books for the mouth. Five centuries of French culinary art, 2001).
- ‘Origin of Crème brûlée’, Petits Propos Culinaires 31 (1989) pp.61/63, several contributors. (The conclusion is that the dish is probably French in origin, but it is still peculiar that Massialot renamed this same recipe from “crème brûlée” to “crème à l’Angloise”. The authors remark on the fact thet the French are not known to attribute their own dishes to other countries, so …?).
- Philip and Mary Hyman, ‘La Chapelle and Massialot: an 18th century feud’, Petits Propos Culinaires 2 (1980) pp 44/54.
- Françoise Sabban en Silvano Serventi, La gastronomie au Grand Siècle. 100 recettes de France et d’Italie (The gastronomy of the Golden Age. 100 recipes from France and Italy). Éditions Stock, 1998.
Recipe for Creme brulée, the best dessert ever
This is a French recipe for crème brûlée from the 17th century in two variations, with lime and orange.