So let’s get the history out of the way: No, it wasn’t invented at Cambridge University in the 19th century; it existed at least as far back as the 17th century in France, Catalan, Flanders and elsewhere. Because frankly, the idea of mixing together eggs, milk and cream isn’t something that takes hundreds of years of thought to come up with.
And yes, some people call it ‘burnt cream’. Some people also eat burgers while walking down the road.
There’s a line, somewhere, between crème brulée, flans, crème patissière, custard, crème anglaise and all the other set creams. Not to mention pana cotta, custard cream and so on.
I have two recipes for crème brulée: a refined one using just egg yolks, cream and sugar; and this quick and dirty one which is, I confess, more like a flan than a real crème brulée. Whatev.
This one calls for a dozen whole eggs – not yolks separated out, whole eggs; I told you this one was quick and dirty – 1.4 litres of cream and milk mixed in whatever proportions you like – I used 40cl of cream and a litre of milk this time – 200g of sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. I put a pinch of salt in lots of things.
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whizz them together with the mixer of your choice. I used a hand-held stick mixer this time. You just need them all combined together.
I then pour this mixture into a jug as it makes the next stage, pouring into ramekins, easier.
These quantities gave me enough mixture for 18 ramekins.
I set them in a baking tray and add boiling water to the tray, about halfway up the sides of the ramekin. This bain marie ensures that the crèmes don’t burn on the bottom – water keeps the temperature to a maximum of 100°C. Top tip: put the bain marie as close to your oven as possible, then add the water to save carrying a heavy, boiling hot pan across your kitchen.
They go into a warm oven at about 150°C for 20 minutes when I turn them around to ensure they cook evenly. I check them again after 20 minutes to see if they’re set – just shake the baking tray gently to see how they wobble. If the mixture in the centre of each ramekins wobbles more than the outside, they’re not quite cooked yet. When the mixture wobbles as one, they’re done. If the tops are starting to brown and they’re still not set, cover with aluminium foil to stop them browning further. This time it took 45 minutes for everything to be set properly
Once cooked, remove them from the oven and the bain marie and allow to cool before refrigerating them.
Just before serving, sprinkle a half teaspoon or so of sugar on top and caramelise it with your blowtorch – I now use one which uses cigarette lighter refill fluid, although I’ve used regular plumbers’ ones before.
Allow the caramel to cool and harden before eating.
You can flavour the crème with many different things: I’ve used basil, rosemary, lemon verbena, lavender and other herbs from the garden many times. You heat up the milk and/or cream with the herb in it and allow it to infuse for an hour or so before making the crème.
You can also add fruits in the bottom of the ramekin – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, banana, whatever takes your fancy.