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The Queen of Desserts

James Beard

February 12, 2018

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In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from the pleasures of oxtails to a lesson in chicken anatomy to the history and preparation of the perfect crème brûlée, which we share with you below. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook.

One of the greatest desserts in the realm of cooking is called crème brûlée, and despite its name, it is not a French dish but a very old English one. No one seems to quite know when or how it became Gallicized, for over a long period of time it was known simply as brunt cream. The earliest recipe I have been able to find was printed in a 17th-century cookbook from Dorsetshire. After that it had a rather interesting history and gained considerable renown. Originally, this was a rich custard, a mixture of sugar, egg yolks, and cream cooked over heat, then poured into a dish and cooled. The top was then sprinkled with sugar and the sugar caramelized to a brown glaze with a red-hot salamander, an old type of heavy metal tool which was lowered to the surface of the sugar and moved over it until the intense heat melted and browned the sugar, hence the name burnt cream.     

Crème brûlée became a standard dessert at Cambridge University, especially Christ College, where it was made in a special dish designed by the Copeland-Spode Company. This was round, about as wide as a soup plate, an inch deep, and heatproof so that it could withstand the tremendous heat generated by the salamander. It’s amusing to read old cookbooks and to discover the many versions of crème brûlée—sometimes it was made with gooseberry or raspberry fool instead of custard.     

In various guises, it became the acknowledged queen of British desserts. I can remember having it at a number of places, including the Houses of Parliament. You still are more apt to find it served in England, although in America we went through a great crème brûlée period a number of years ago, and I wish we would again, for to my mind it is without peer—few desserts are more delicious to eat and to look at. There is such a subtle contrast of flavor and texture between the creamy custard and its crisp caramelized topping.     

In the years during which the recipe has been used in the United States, the original recipe has been considerably changed, and I’m not sure it is for the better. Many American recipes call for a topping of brown sugar, and although I have used this from time to time, I’ve never felt the result was all it should be. So much of the brown sugar you get these days does not have the texture it used to. I now use fine granulated sugar instead, and it makes a much more delicious crust. Although the dessert sounds simple, there are a couple of tricky points about the preparation, so I’m going to give you my version of crème brûlée:     

Heat 1 pint of heavy cream, the heaviest you can get, to the boiling point. Lightly beat 6 egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar and a pinch of salt, and pour the hot cream over them, stirring constantly with a wooden spatula or wire wisk until well blended. Add 2 teaspoons vanilla or a little mace or any other flavoring you desire. Strain the custard into a 1 1/2-quart heatproof baking dish, stand the dish in a pan of warm water, and bake in a 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the custard is completely set but not overcooked. Do not let the water in the pan boil. Remove from the oven, cool, and then chill thoroughly in the refrigerator.     

About 1 1/2 to 2 hours before serving, sprinkle the top evenly with fine granulated sugar to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Put under the broiler (or use a salamander, if you have one) until the sugar is melted and bubbly, watching carefully to see it does not scorch and burn. Remove, cool, and chill again until serving time. You’ll have a hard, highly glazed crust on top of an unctuous, voluptuous custard. This will serve about six. If you have more guests, double the recipe, using 12 egg yolks to a quart of cream.   

This is the method of making crème brûlée that I prefer. However, after combining the cream with the egg yolks and sugar, you may cook the custard gently until the mixture coats the spoon—stir constantly, and be sure it does not come to a boil. Pour into the baking dish, cool, chill, and glaze the sugared top as above. When the custard is cooked this way, rather than baked, the consistency is less firm, so be sure the chilled custard is completely set before sprinkling it with sugar, or the sugar may sink to the bottom of the dish, which is not what one wants at all.     

While you can certainly serve crème brûlée alone, it is sometimes fun to gild the lily a bit. I like a little cream with it, either heavy cream or whipped cream, flavored perhaps with a touch of cognac. Dry, short, sweet cookies are fine with it, and so is a piece of good honest plain cake.