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...
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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!

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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.

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