Crème Brûlée

An all-time favourite from the seventeenth century in two variations

A table laden with sweetsCrème 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 the seventeenth century. Whether its origins are French, English (see bibliography) or Spanish (yes, the Crema Catalana!) is unclear. Sabban and Serventi (edition) 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
Louis XIVThe 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 (edition) suspects he was not in service, but an undependent 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 onwards 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.
More French recipes from the seventeenth century on this site: Pea Soup, Salmon in red wine sauce, Petits pois  à la crême, Potage à la Reine, Spinach Pie, Pomegranate Salad, Jacobin Pottage, Lemonade, Meat Stock, Marinated Veal Cutlets.

The original recipe
The original text of the recipe, taken from Massialot, Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois, Paris, 1691, as it appeared in La gastronomie au Grand Siècle. 100 recettes de France et d'Italie, F. Sabban and S. Serventi, Éd. Stock (1998), p.270/271.

(Crème brûlée)
Il faut prendre quatre ou cinq jaunes d'oeufs, selon la grandeur de votre plat ou assiette. Vous les délayerez 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'ecorce de citron vert haché, & d'autre confit. On y peut aussi hacher de l'ecorce 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, & la toujours remuer, prenant garde que votre crème ne s'attache pas au fond. Quand elle sera bien cuite, mettez un plat ou une assiette sur un fourneau allumé; & ayant versé la crème dedans, faites-la cuire encore, jusqu'`a ce que vous voyez qu'elle s'attache au bord du plat. Alors il la faut tirer en arrière, & la bien sucrer par-dessus, outre le sucre que l'on y met dedans: on prend la pelle du feu, bien rouge; & du même temps on en brûle la crème, afin qu'elle prenne une belle couleur d'or.
(Crème brûlée)
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.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
There are two recipes here, one for crème brûlée au citron vert, the other for crème brulé à l'orange. I have tried both recipes. In the original recipes the custards are enriched with candied fruit. Just as Sabban and Serventi I have chosen for fresh citrus perel only. The candied fruit was too rich for my taste.
Each recipe is as dessert for four persones; preperation in advance 20 minutes + cooling; preparation 10 minutes.

Pitfalls to avoid while 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.
You can caramelize the sugar layer in several different ways. I have tried all methods described below, the third method was most to my liking. You get the best result when you let the custard cool without covering it up, in order to let the surface dry. Do not sprinkle with sugar until just before you want caramelize, and serve as soon as that is done. Otherwise the burnt sugar will absorb moisture from the crème and become soft.
    1. Under the built-in grill of an electric oven. When you burn the sugar under a grill, the custard heats up too. I like it best when the custard is still at room temperature or cold.
Searing iron for crème brûlée    2. With a searing iron you get when buying a set of dishes for "crema catalana". Using a searing iron is laborious, especially when there are several dishes to be done. The iron needs to be reheated every so often.
    3. 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.

Ingredients for Crème Brûlée with lime
1/2 litre (2 cups/1 pint) milk
5 egg yolks
75 gram (1/3 cup) ground pistachio nuts of prime quality
60 gram (1/4 cup) sugar
15 gram (2 Tbsp.) flour
1 cinnamon stick
the grated zest of 3 limes
1/2 tsp. orange blossom water
enough (icing) sugar to cover the crème
Ingredients for Crème Brûlée with orange
1/2 litre (2 cups/1 pint) milk
5 egg yolks
70 gram (1/3 cup) ground almonds
60 gram (1/4 cup) sugar
15 gram (2 Tbsp.) flour
1 cinnamon stick
the grated zest of 2 oranges
1 tsp. orange blossom water
enough (icing) sugar to cover the crème

Burning crème brûléePreparation in advance
Mix the egg yolks with flour and sugar, orange blossom water, and either ground almonds or ground pistachio nuts.
Bring the milk to the boil with the stick of cinnamon. When the milk starts to boil, temper the heat and remove the cinnamon stick. Now pay attention: to thicken a hot liquid with raw egg yolks can be tricky if you do not have any experience with it. Here 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. Add also thegrated zest of limes or oranges. 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 to serving, place the dish(es) in the refrigerator when they have cooled. The top-layer must be slightly dried to obtain a nice crisp layer of caramelized sugar.

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 on the right).

To serve
You have to serve the crème brûlée 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.

All descriptions of ingredients

Raised fire placeBurner - The stove as we know it was not used in the seventeenth century. There was no electricty or gass. 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).
brick furnaceIn the seventeenth century the stove build with 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) gives instructions on how to build your own stove. In the 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 he side of the stove there are vent-holes that also provide access to remove the ashes (see picture on the right). Cast-iron stoves date from the nineteenth century.
How to thicken a sauce or custard with raw egg yolks - 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.
How to use a blow torch - It's great fun, using a blow torch in the kitchen, you can feel really tough! You can buy 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 burner. Take care that there is nothing inflammable in the vicinity of where you want to caramelize your custards. And don't do it on your antique wooden table! Keep children away, a blow torch is not a toy. When you lit the burner, take care that the flame is directed at free space, 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.
Orange blossom water or orange flower water - 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 are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
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