Sunday, 23 January 2011

Burnt To A Creme

Life has a way of sneaking desserts onto your plate, doesn't it? I, for one, have come across creme brulee* and its relatives time and again. My first proper exposure to it was at a friend's house in Heidelberg, where a small group of dancer-cooks (dancing cooks, even) used to get together monthly (or thereabouts) to share in culinary excesses. Many a time, creme brulee was served up after midnight, as a sweet finale to a sumptuous dinner, only to be followed by a bitter-sweet coffee and heartfelt good-bye-until-soons. Unsurprisingly this friend and I gasped in rapture when we first saw Amelie - that iconic scene in the opening sequence, when Amelie cracks the caramel atop her creme brulee with a spoon!

A few years later, while at Cambridge, I heard that iconic story that gives Trinity College an upper hand (at least in my greedy, sweet-toothed view) over St John's College: so what the latter is allowed to serve swan (a privilege otherwise reserved to the Royal Family)! Trinity, I heard, was the birth place of 'Cambridge Burnt Cream', the dessert now commonly known by its French name of the same meaning (minus the 'Cambridge', of course). A seventeenth-century cook at Trinity College, the story goes, tried to prepare a sweet cream dessert for a formal hall (=evening dinner, whose setting is, unfortunately, known to the world now as a Harry Potter-style feast - but don't let's go there); and failed to succeed when he put too little sugar into the eggy cream mixture. A resourceful person unwilling to let good ingredients go to waste (or to be beaten with the head chef's wooden spoon), he put the remaining sugar on top, and grilled it to create a caramel crust. This new dessert was spoon-lickingly yummy, and soon became a staple of the college's dinners.
Formal hall at St John's College, Cambridge
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

A story Hollywood should pounce upon:

In a world... where swans are for dinner... a sous chef from the slums of Cambridge... a man suffering from recipe illiteracy... overcomes all obstacles... and creates... heaven in a ramekin.
Cream - the dessert story. In a cinema near you. Soon.

Recently, the original recipe of 'Burnt Cream' has indeed enjoyed some celebrity attention: Prince Charles, who is an alumnus of Trinity College, is producing a commercial version in his Duchy Originals range. Read the full story in the Cambridge News! And this is where the story could end, happily ever after. Except...

Warning: If you are of a sensitive nature, you may want to skip this next section and go straight to the recipes at the end of this post!

Except: At a closer look, the wonderful story of burnt cream is a bit dodgy. First of all, there are several stories about how exactly it was created. Wikipedia claims (a bit clumsily), and backed by the authority of cookbook authority Elizabeth David, that
"a version of crème brûlée (known locally as 'Trinity Cream' or 'Cambridge burnt cream') was introduced at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1879 with the college arms 'impressed on top of the cream with a branding iron'. The story goes that the recipe was from an Aberdeenshire country house and was offered by an undergraduate to the college cook, who turned it down; but that when the student became a Fellow, he managed to convince the cook."
Secondly, Trinity College declares this story to be humbug on its website, declaring the story to be a nineteenth-century myth.

Thirdly, there's the issue of the French, the creme and the national pride. Something I will not contemplate here, because...

...finally, I found a much more intriguing recipe among the collections of a German celebrity chef, Alfons Schuhbeck. The German answer to Nigella he may not be (he's 61 years old, not exactly eye candy, and cooks for real - without shortcuts or an abundance of antics; mon dieu - the man has a Bavarian accent!), but his recipe makes me want to break out my ramekins! Judge for yourself. I've listed two recipes below. In any event, I hope this gets your spoons cracking! Let me know which way your spoon is inclined (or indeed, if you have a favourite way to burn cream of your own).
Alfons Schuhbeck
Photo courtesy of RP

* I apologise for not inserting any accents into this post. If I spent time importing those little accents into the script provided by the blogging software, I'd be drooling all over the keyboard...
_ _ _ _ _

Cambridge Burnt Cream
(recipe paraphrased from the Guardian which, in turn, nicked it from Rebecca Seal's Cook: A year in the kitchen with Britain's favourite chefs)

350ml double cream
150ml milk
1 whole nutmeg
6 egg yolks
100g caster sugar, plus extra for the topping

Preheat oven to 120C. Pour milk and cream with the crushed-into-pieces nutmeg, cover in cling film and bring to simmer on a low heat. Place aside and allow to infuse.

In a bowl, mix yolks and sugar, whisking madly, then add the infused milk and remove the nutmeg, sieving the mixture. Pour everything into a large ovenproof dish (holding ca. 600ml), so that it is filled to the top. Place into a water-filled oven tray serving as a water bath with 2cm water all around.

Bake for 30-45 minutes until set. Allow to cool. Sprinkle on sugar and do the creme brulee thing. Enjoy!

_ _ _ _ _

Alfons Schuhbeck's creme brulee
(German recipe on his website)

180ml cream
180ml whole milk
1/2 vanilla pod
1 sprig rosemary
40g sugar + more for the caramel top
4 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 150C. Boil cream, milk, half the sugar, vanilla and rosemary and leave to stand for 15 minutes. Then whisk together egg yolks and the remaining sugar, without frothing (the bubbles would make a yucky creme brulee bubble-texture), and slowly add the cream mixture, removing rosemary and vanilla by sieving the whole mixture.

Pour into ramekins (ca. 100 ml each), set into oven dish for water bath, adding just enough water so the bottom third of the ramekins is covered. Bake for 40-50 minutes, checking consistency frequently. Leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours, better even over night. Then sprinkle with sugar and do the caramel thing, which I'm too lazy to reiterate since we've all seen it done so many times. Voila.

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Greetings, patient awaiter of this very belated blog post. This very moment, as you are reading this, I am preparing my teaching for February, spending much time staring at possibly inappropriate images of zodiac men (like the one below), reading astrological charts from the fifteenth century and transcribing instructions for blood-letting. As you do on a slow Sunday afternoon.
From Wellcome MS 8004
thanks to their fabulous digital online edition

My preparations are speeding ahead at an unusually urgent pace, fuelled by a recent conversation that got my blood racing - rather appropriately in the context of zodiac men, those diagrams indicating veins and their connections to the stars which help determine advantageous times for letting blood. Mine would've been positively spurting out of my body in the Sign of the Phone. You see, the other day a friend I've known for more than a decade called me. She is a journalist, widely travelled and fluent in several languages. This friend and I have some synchronicity going: we call each other, more often than not, at exactly the point where we both need some comfort, a fresh burst of energy or just someone to tell us that everything's going to be all right, and it always works. Used to work, I should say. This time she managed to make my skin crawl when I mentioned a recent success of mine in my pet discipline of the history of science, to be exact an official acknowledgement of my expertise in the history of alchemy. She exclaimed: "Fancy that! There you are, pottering along on a crusty old subject with no relevance to the modern world whatsoever, and you're considered on par with proper scientists!"

Now some of you may agree - why should history of alchemy be relevant to, well, anything? And why should I be looking forward to teaching students of the history of English about medical manuscripts? The answer to the first question could go on forever, but I am keen to get back to my teacher-like plotting and scheming activities. Suffice to say that an understanding of how those who experimented before us thought about matter, about the world and its workings, and the meaning of it all, should give us a healthy impression of uncertainty and passion, the two main movers and shakers of intelligent man. Uncertainty about 'how things really are', and indeed whether there is a fixed inventory of facts that may be discovered for total wisdom and knowledge, keeps things interesting for modern scientists, philosophers, and ponderers alike. The passion to investigate, no matter how long it takes or where it may lead, gets them off their mental and physical butts and into studies, labs and other places of uncovery. For me, the idea that this is a process that keeps going, in waves and spirals, forever, is fascinating and comforting. There are always more 'eureka' moments to be had.

The reasons why I like teaching palaeography (that is, reading old handwriting), manuscripts and old forms of English based on medical manuscripts are also many: firstly, medical manuscripts can be really pretty, contain intriguing images, some of them gory, and hence draw in the eye of even the most reluctant student to the image, and the brain of the same student to the subject at hand. Secondly, the medical context gives a human element to it all: in the fifteenth century, sick people consulted doctors who treated them to the best of their knowledge. Doctor and patient shared some sense of how the human body works (and what to do when it doesn't), and how it fits into God's creation. It all made good sense. Today, we still do the same thing. And although different cultures have different understandings of the body, illness and cures, it is the body itself, and the urgency that drives a patient to seek advice, that is a constant among the many variables which constitute 'medicine' in different times and places. The recognition of this familiar element, and the wonder of (even an initial rejection of) strange methods and cures, gets everyone's brains going. Students will want to read those bits of text around the zodiac man.  And they will have that eureka moment when they realise that, within the late medieval system of medicine and astrology, it all makes as much sense as, say, Prozac does today. One day I'll get my journalist friend on board, too, and take her on this time travel device called history - with a twist.

On that note, this blogging doctor is busy. Go eat your greens, and don't miss your next appointment!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Detecting Alchemy

'Twas a peculiar Christmas this year, treeless and improvised, but thanks to fraternal company quite enjoyable. Then a mysterious illness struck yours truly: a finger swollen to triple its size, an infection or virus, or maybe an allergy? In any event, I snoozed through New Year's eve, spent New Year's day in hospital and, well, 'twas all very peculiar. But now, during my convalescence from whatever-that-was, and using my newly deflated finger to press the 's's and 'w's ever so gingerly, it all comes together. Indeed, one question, an old chestnutty favourite of mine, has permeated this holiday season: what, and why? (Ok, technically, that's two questions, but you will soon see why they are really conjoined twins.)

History and storytelling, apart from their obvious etymological connections, have at least one thing in common, in that they phrase and package, arrange and alter (often unwittingly) information, and knock it into a shape that makes sense to an audience, be it amateur armchair sleuths or academics. They identify a 'what', manufacture a coherent 'why', and present it all in a more or less straightforward fashion. Incidentally, if your academic writing mimics the plot of a mystery novel (it takes 63 pages of lead-up to produce one resounding, simple, 'duh'-inducing answer), you know you've been raised in a German academic institution. Kidding. Maybe.
Behold the fraternally bestowed Christmas goodie!
Image from

Anyway, to take one example that has distracted me so entertainingly while I was half adaze with antibiotics, consider Lord Peter Wimsey, the 1972 BBC series. I distinctly remember seeing similar scenes in school programmes (our form of media entertainment beyond the overhead projector): ESL resources from the '70s, packaged in twee, twilled Englishness, complete with silver tea pots and butlers. Even back in my school days I wondered, was England really like that? A school exchange with a posh private school for privileged boys (which, to be honest, scared the be-jeezes out of me, as they say these days) gave a clear answer: yes and no. Funnily enough, those things I could not imagine anyone having, doing, wearing or eating all materialised (think Laura Ashley-style curtains, horse races, dressing gowns and cold cuts for 'tea'). But some supposedly quintessentially English items introduced in these programmes were nowhere to be found in this London suburb I visited; they had all but vanished into obscurity, or perhaps never existed, who knows?
Hugh Fraser as Hastings, David Suchet as Poirot, busy sleuthing
Image from IMDB

Beyond cultural stereotypes, mysteries-made-film like the abovementioned Wimsey, or indeed Poirot, even CSI sell 'sleuthness', the only way to detect and solve, and far from the everyday experiences of those who figure out whodunnit down the road. Much more than the novels they are based on, these TV adaptations sell a style, an atmosphere which we recognise and like so much. Tweeds. Afternoon teas. That sort of thing. But beware of confusing the speed of CSI's DNA analyses with actual forensic lab work. And honestly, no detective, or indeed any other person, will exclaim "I say!" when making a discovery. And yet, the traits we educated mystery viewers recognise in TV detectives do bear some relation to what it is their real-life models do for a living. Perhaps filmed mysteries are like those plastic presentation dishes in Japanese restaurants. You'd never want to bite into one of the latter, nor live in Poirot's world, but looking at either is, oh, so tasty. To learn about the nitty and even the gritty of real forensic science, detection, and the horror of real-life crimes, you'd have to see the sites, smell the smells and look at millions of insignificant dust specks through microscopes in police stations, forensic labs and at crime scenes. Personally, I find that reading the newspaper, walking the streets of Philadelphia on an early Saturday (post-clubbing-night) morning and trying to find my house keys is enough of an impression to put me off an internship at the Met forever.

But for me as an alchemy scholar and person who cooks, the implications of spruced-up stories about certain professions go one-and-a-half steps further. The half step is the realisation that dinner parties have changed in the past few years. What with cooking shows and utterly self-conscious, self-fashioning TV chefs, it seems impossible to talk about food, cook a meal or entertain guests without absorbing some of this attitude. What are you - an adjective-abusing, dangerously luscious Nigella-in-the-making or a **** Gordon Ramsey, a homely '70s Delia or a hands-on eccentric, Julia Child-style? Do you call your desserts 'beau'iful' or adopt a Swedish Chef approach, in defiance of the dictum of modern chefness? By the way, Junior Masterchef, a cooking competition for ca. 10-year-olds who talk about their 'passion for food', the fact that they've been cooking 'from a very early age, about 2 or 3' and their hopes that appearing on Junior Masterchef will be 'good for my CV' (your CV? You're 10 years old!) makes me queasy. But that's just an aside.

Back to cooking: I have lost the sense of what it is that professional chefs actually do, and why everyone wants to be one. Cooking fifty of the same dishes day in, day out, in the heat, on one's feet all day cannot possibly be much fun. More to the point, what it is like to be a chef I'd only know if I were to work in a professional kitchen. The same goes for alchemy, and this is where I take the full step from mystery to alchemy (as promised above). I truly don't know how much self-consciousness went into the fashioning of an alchemist. The recipes that survive in manuscripts are either mere reminders to the proficient alchemist, stripped to the bones, or elaborate presentations of metaphorically dressed narratives. The images drawn, mostly by Dutch painters decades or even centuries after the heyday of alchemy, present alchemists as the non-alchemical public wanted to see them, recognise them and draw comfort from this familiarity. None of the historical evidence provides a full picture. So, what is a historian to do? And why?
The Alchemist (detail; 17th century, school of David Teniers II)

One answer, and in my humble opinion a rather smashing one, has been proposed by Professor Pamela Smith: observe, handle, do, smell... learning about practices by observing, or even practising, them. Because it gives an understanding of a craft and skill that goes beyond intellectual appreciation and further than the written words surviving today. Pamela has applied this theory to her work on ceramics (see her wonderful The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution) and given me and others the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the worlds of metal casting and silver smithing (in an observing capacity, of course). And all of a sudden, while watching silver smiths at work, using skills that have been handed on for many generations and using their hands and bodies, their timing and senses in a way purely motivated by what works best for their craft, far away from cameras and public audiences, a lot of information, knowledge and the puzzle that is the history of alchemy fell into place in my head. Of course, that was just the beginning (and moreover, this was five years ago). Here's hoping there's more of this to come in my future.

And with this, a note with (I am sure) a moral (somewhere), I wish all my readers a happy, curious and eye-opening new year. May it sparkle in its own way.