The Mint Shop

The Mint Shop

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The war of the custards

It is certain that food is the number one (or maybe number two) cause for deadly wars and bitter disputes. I am not talking about the obvious fights over resources or price peaks, but about the ownership of recipes.

Who owns mousaka, Greece or Turkey? Or hummus, Lebanon or Israel? Or canard a' l'orange, Italy or France (actually I know the answer to this one...)? Book and books will tell you one or the other story. Depending on the preference.

Well it is often difficult to establish the origins of a dish, especially when it sits on the border of two countries with similar traditions and geography. And even when there is a sea in between there might still be conflicts. Never would I have thought that creme brulee was not French (or maybe I could have...?!!?) but English. In fact surprise, surprise! Scottish! Non, c'est pas vrai!

Yes it is. Did you know that?

Even though in almost every cooking book you will find that it was French chef, Massialot who in 1691 referred to the dish allegedly for the first time, it seems that instead it was in 1600 that a student from an Aberdeenshire country house offered the recipe to the cook of Trinity College in Cambridge who refused it - possibly because he was just a student, and *foreign*! Nevertheless the persistent student proposed it again when he became a Fellow of the college. No surprise then that it is also referred to as creme anglaise!

But the cook did not do it well. He burnt it! Alas! But instead of recalling the hundreds of little dishes shoveled to the Hall, he let the guests eat it. And to his surprise they all enjoyed it. I am a big believer that most of the best recipes come from mistakes. You only need to think of Tarte Tatin and Turkish Delight for example.

So Trinity College is not only the richest Cambridge college (and one of the richest institutions in the entire England owning most of Oxford Street!) but also boasts one of the most known desserts in the world!

Making a good burnt cream is not at all easy. The eggs must be very fresh, when heating cream and eggs you always need to watch the stages carefully and sieving the mixture always makes a much smoother effect.
This is a recipe that in my opinion really works. And the original one has cardamom seeds as well as vanilla. Orange or lemon are also good variations. What do you normally use ?

For 4 people

250ml milk
250ml single cream
1 vanilla pod
4-5 cardamom seeds
100g caster sugar
5 egg yolks
50g Demerara sugar

Preheat the oven to 150C

Mix milk, cream, vanilla pods and half of the caster sugar.

Bring to boil over low heat and then remove it from the heat and cool. Scrape the vanilla pods into the milk and crushed cardamom seeds.

Beat the egg yolks with the remaining sugar until white and creamy. Pour the vanilla-flavour milk over the eggs and mix well.

Sieve the mixture and transfer it into 4 ramekins. Place the ramekins in a tin half-filled with warm water. Bake for 35 minutes. Then cool.

When cool, sprinkle the brown sugar and burn it either under a grill or with a torch. That is the most fun part of the recipe!

Controversially I add is probably a Mexican influenced creme...but at least I don't use salt and lime too! Mild cheddar once melted gives a really creamy and nutty texture to the pudding. Try!


  1. What a fascinating story. I hadn't heard about the Cambridge connection before, but it sounds convincing. Just as your idea of adding cheddar to the baked and burned cream...

  2. I find the history behind food almost more interesting than the food itself - well, almost! I am a real gourmante!

  3. You are really right, many disputes over food! I heard about Stilton recently - crazy!

    Thank you for the story!