The Origin of Crème Brûlée

Crème brûlée, a dessert that simply radiates indulgence, refinement, and simplicity. At first glance, it would appear to be the quintessential French dessert. After all its name is French for “burnt cream” but the true origins of crème brûlée are not straightforward. In fact, France, England, and Spain all have claimed to be the country of origin to the crème brûlée. In an effort to be accurate we did a little digging.

A Question Unanswered

Upon further inspection into our crème query, we found English recipes for something very similar to crème brûlée that date all the way back to the 15th century. It would seem that in the Spring during calving season in England the milk was especially rich, and a sweetened custard was made seasonally to take advantage of those plentiful days. Some say the burning of the sugar was added later at Trinity College in Cambridge where a student is credited with the idea of branding the school crest into a topping of sugar. It’s called Cambridge Cream or Trinity Cream and has been a staple on the school’s menu ever since.

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By 1691 we begin to see written recipes for crème brûlée in French cookbooks but instead of burning the sugar directly onto the custard they placed an already prepared disk of caramelized sugar on top. A difference of technique to our modern interpretation, albeit slight.

The dark horse in this race, Spain’s Crema Catalana, is said to date all the way back to the medieval period. Narrowing it down neatly for us somewhere between the 5th and 15th centuries. Our question remains somewhat unanswered, what we know for sure is that the technique for creating custard rose to prominence in the middle ages and spread rapidly throughout Europe making it difficult to pinpoint the first brûlée.

A Second Renaissance

Though crème brûlée dates all the way back to the middle ages, one could argue that it didn’t gain real stardom in America until the 1980’s. Curiously enough crème brûlée had been in America for centuries at this point. There are records of the epicurean Thomas Jefferson serving it at the White House. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s it could be found in magazines and cookbooks across the country. It wasn’t until one of New York’s swankiest restaurants, Le Cirque, introduced it to their menu that it really exploded.

The 1980’s was an age of decadence and self-indulgence, a second renaissance, punctuated by cocaine and a newfound interest in all things epicurean and crème brûlée was at the center of it all. In this perfect storm of events, the crème brûlée made its come-back at precisely the right time. The darling of the restaurant boom, the brûlée encapsulated that whole gratuitous decade in one small ramekin.

The Brûlée Today

Since its reintroduction to mainstream culture, the crème brûlée has been nothing less than a force of nature, spawning countless offspring and reproductions. From the most sophisticated restaurants to the grocery store, the crème brûlée has made an indelible impression on the American masses. Now there is crème brûlée flavored ice cream, donuts, cupcakes, french toast, even coffee creamer. Though widely available wherever you go, we find that the original remains the best.

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Hannah Abaffy

Hannah Abaffy

Pastry Chef & Recipe Development

Hannah Abaffy is a pastry chef and an active member of the culinary community. From working in kitchens to developing recipes, and creating menus for restaurants, she has been involved with food in one capacity or another for the past decade. After starting a food history blog, Hannah has been continuously writing and learning about the ever-changing realm of cuisine, its history, and its future. Since then her appetite to learn about and share all things that touch upon the world of food can only be described as voracious.

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