What is Crème Brûlée?

A short history of everyone's favorite custard dessert.

Photo courtesy of flickr/Tasty Palettes


It is generally assumed that because crème brûlée is a French name, that the French created this delicious, custard caramel dessert. Of course if you ask them, they would take the credit. However, the name for this dish wasn’t popularized until the beginning of the 19th century. Most historians believe that it was created in the Middle Ages and not given a name until the French decided to brand it. (Photo courtesy of flickr/LollysSweetTreats).


The exact origin of this sweet is not known. England, Spain, and France all claim to have created the first version of the dessert.  The English claim that during the 17th century, a young student from Trinity College in Cambridge offered a creamy unsweetened custard with a caramel topping to a peer. The cooking staff got ahold of this delicacy and burnt the sugar as a topping, effectively “brulee-ing” it. 


The Spanish claim that their dish, Crema Catalana, which dates back to the 18th century, is crème brûlée’s descendent. Unlike crème brûlée, Crème Catalana isn’t baked, but instead served as cold custard with a hot topping. (Photo courtesy of flickr/sim00n).


The first recorded recipe for crème brûlée, in its modern day form is found in Francois Massialot’s 1731 cookbook. There are certain techniques utilized to make a perfect crème brûlée. Its ingredients call for egg yolks, sugar, vanilla extract, and cream. Traditionally it is baked and served in individual ramekins until the edges are set but the centers hardly wobble. Next the custards are cooled in a water bath for half an hour then chilled overnight. Once the custard is cooled, top it with a generous amount of sugar and torch the tops until it darkens and forms a glaze. It must be served within thirty to sixty minutes of torching it. (Photo courtesy of flickr/Dave Lifson).