The name is French, but the origins are not perfectly clear. Escoffier and the other major French culinary experts do not include recipes for this item in their classic cookbooks. Culinary experts generally agree that Creme Brulee originated in England. They also agree recipes for this dessert vary accoring to time and place.
“One of the greatest desserts in the realm of cooking is Creme Brulee and despite its name it is not French but a very old English one. No one seems quite to know when or how it became Gallicized, for over a long period of time it was known simply as burnt cream. The earliest recipe I have been able to find was printed in a 17th-century cookbook from Dorsetshire. After that it had a rather interesting history and gained considerable renown. Originally, this was a rich custard, a mixture of sugar, egg yolks and cream cooked over heat, then poured into a dish and cooled. The top was then sprinkled with sugar and the sugar caramelized to a brown glaze with a red-hot salamander, and old type of heavy metal tool which was lowered to the surface of the sugar and moved over it until the intense heat melted and browned the sugar, hence the name burnt cream. Creme Brulee became a standard dessert at Cambridge University, especially Christ College where it was made in a special dish designed by the Copeland-Spode Co. It’s amusing to read old cookbooks and to discover the many versions of Creme Brulee–sometimes it was made with gooseberry or raspberry fool instead of custard…You still are more apt to find it served in England, although in America we went through a great Creme Brulee period a number of years ago and I wish we would again, for to my mind it is without peer–few desserts are more delicious to eat and to look at…In the years during which the recipe has been used in America, the original recipe has been considerably changed, and I’m not sure it was for the better. Many U.S. recipes call for a topping of brown sugared, and although I have used this from time to time, I’ve never felt the result was all it should be…”
—“Creme Brulee: Dessert One of the Greatest,” James A. Beard, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1970 (p. K3)
[NOTE: This article contains a typical 1970s American recipe.]
“Creme brulee is a French term for a rich baked custard made with cream, rather than with milk. The Custard is topped with a layer of sugar (usually brown) which is then caramelized by use of a salamander or under a grill. Creme, meaning cream, is derived from the Latin “Chrisma” through the old French creme. The term brulee is applied to dishes such as cream custards with are finished off with a caramelized sugar glaze. In English, the dish is Burnt cream. This term was in use as long ago as the beginning of the 18th century, but the French term had already been used by Massailot in 1691 and has priority, although it fell into disuse in France for a while in the 19th century…Creme brulee is also sometimes known as Trinity cream because of its association with Trinity College, Cambridge, where the college crest was impressed on top of the cream with a branding iron.”
—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 226)
“Although many people think of [Creme Brulee] as a French dessert, creme brulee is actually Creole. Make the basic cream exactly like the preceding creme anglaise, but use half the amount of sugar, and whipping cream instead of milk.”
—Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle & Julia Child [Alfred A. Knopf:New York] 1963 (p. 589)
“Creme brulee…The Random House Dictionary of the English Language traces the first appearance in print of creme brulee to 1885, from the French, meaning ‘burnt cream,’ which it is often called in England. But the dish is probably not of French oridings. Escoffier does not mention such a dish; Larousse Gastronomique refers to a similar dish under the name Creme Anglaise au Miroir…as ‘burnt cream’ the dish originated in England, where, according to English food authority Jane Grigson recipes for the dish appeared in seventeenth- century cookbooks. By the turn of the twentieth century it had become a favorite dessert at Trinity College, Cambridge, and, according to Jane Garmen in Great British Cooking (1981), it is often referred to as ‘Trinity Cream.’Recipes for ‘burnt cream’ have been included in Creole cookbooks since the nineteenth century, though the Picayune Creole Cook Book (1901) indicates that the confection is made merely by adding caramel to a custard base that is then reduced, strained, garished with fruits, and served cool…The classic American cookbook Joy of Cooking calls it ‘A rich French custard–famous for its hard, caramelized sugar glaze.’…the popularity of the dish in the United States soared after it was made fashionable when chef Alain Sailhac brought the idea back from a trip to Spain (where the dish is known as an old Catalan dessert called crema quemada a la catalana) in 1982 and began making it at the restaurant Le Cirque in New York City. After that it became a standard dish in American fine-dining restaurants, as well, ironically, as in France.”
—Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 106-7)
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