Assumed Origins

A discussion was had yesterday about how the restaurant would present creme brulee.  A dish as classic as they come, and one I have yet to serve on my 4 month young menu, we debated the need for a nibble on the side of the ramekin, a cookie most likely.

“Classicists would argue that the dish stands alone, and needs no adornment,” I brought to point.  “But they would also argue that it should never be flavored with anything but vanilla bean.”

Then someone said something that stunned me.

“Well, I don’t know who these “classicists” are, the dish was invented in the 1970′s by Le Cirque.”


I realized then and there that I had been functioning on the assumption that this dish, the noble creme brulee, was as old as France.  I had no factual basis for this assumption.  I just chalked it up to classic cuisine, taught early in my formal training at a learning institute based heavily on Escoffier.

But still, that couldn’t be right could it?

So I picked up Escoffier, and no dice.  No recipe for creme brulee is contained in the monolithic tome.  “Holy crap” I thought, could this possibly be?

Breath abated, I typed, “Creme brulee origin” into the google tool bar and waited for the results.

“It’s old!” I sighed.

Because google is arguably not a food historian, it gave me conflicting information as to the facts behind this dish’s origin.  But one thing remains true, records of an egg and cream custard with burnt sugar on top date back to the 17th century.  So my foundation remains stable.

It was just a little surprise to remember that I do function on assumptions every day.  My brain fills in the blanks so to speak, making little guesses, hypothesis, connections between the things I do know to create a whole picture for me.  It’s a good lesson to remember that those assumptions I haven’t solidified with fact are just that, and to speak of them as such, lest I unwittingly turn my assumptions into another young cooks facts!

And to all you creme brulee classicists who scoff at my brulee’s flavored with more than vanilla, you should know that the original creme brulee’s were most likely flavored with cinnamon, orange blossom and rose waters, bay leaf, or the peel of citrus.  And you might want to sit down for this…… they were also likely were studded with candied fruits and nuts.

8 Responses to “Assumed Origins”

  1. Steve says:

    The debate over the origins of creme brulee (or whether it should receive an accompanying cookie) are much less important than how it tastes. I find (as a diner, but not a chef) that creme brulee’s typically yellow custard is far too sweet and the petrified crusts contribute little in taste or texture. I offer up as a counterpoint the best creme brulee I’ve ever had, which was at Astier, a neighborhood bistro in Paris. (

    The custard in Astier’s version was brown and had a muted sweetness. The top layer of crispy sugar was very thin and the spoon easily penetrated it. Broken into pieces, it provided additional sweetness and texture to the custard.

  2. Erik says:

    Yum, I’d like to try the real “classical” creme brulee…though that does sound like a lot of competing flavors

  3. dana says:

    Steve- I agree with you completely about the high instance of too sweet custards. Unfortunately creme brulee’s are one of those desserts that seemingly every restaurant will throw on a menu, particularly in the absence of a dedicated pastry professional, thus an unfortunate percentage of creme brulee’s end up being, well, sub par. And with such a simplistic dessert, every flaw shows.

    Erik- Goodness, they would compete! I meant the statement to be an either/or list, not a combination.

  4. German Baker says:

    When I have read this, I had a good Idea: At next Weekend I will serve a dessert for my guests named “Variations of Creme brulee”!

  5. Loving Annie says:

    I had an outstanding creme brulee with fresh raspberries and carmelized banana slices recently at Roy’s at The Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, California.

    It was superb.

    I don’t really care if it is was made with classic techniques (meaning plain) or not – I care that it tastes so yummy I’m still thinking about it a week later :)

    Happy New Year 2009 and many delicious desserts ahead !

    Loving Annie

  6. Kirsten says:

    Dana, good to see you writing again!!

    You should be pleased to know that this post is now the 4th hit when Creme brulee origin is googled! And I have no doubt that your own interpretation will be delightful.

  7. Carley says:

    The best part of crème brulee is totally the brulee. Crispy, crunchy, sweet delicious brulee. The best I ever had was at a restaurant in Rotterdam, NE De Twaalf Hausen. They had the most delicious prix fix in town (all local & wild game, fois gras, boar, currants & the likes) which was concluded with a dessert trio: Pistachio ice cream with brownie, quince sorbet and a crème brulee that was served in the most shallow ramekin I’ve ever seen. The crème, that was probably 10mm thick, was deliciously vanilla flavored with candied orange zest, but it was the proportion, far more brulee than crème, that made it perfection. The cognac was an added bonus.

  8. Carley says:

    Oh… ok… how about cognac crème brulee? Is that even possible? Cognac crème brulee with candied kumquats and pistachios???? Ok???? *explodes*

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