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January 16, 1986|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

Although newly popular, Creme Brulee is actually older than the Victorian setting in which the ramekins of custard are shown. The oldest known recipe dates back to England in the 17th Century, and the dessert was known in California almost 100 years ago. The traditional version consists of rich custard topped with a layer of sugar that is melted under the broiler. When cooled, the sugar forms a brittle, brown crust. The name creme brulee is French for burned cream and refers to this "burning" of the sugar topping. Modern variations include the addition of liqueurs, fruit or nuts and a pastry crust.

C reme brulee is a crackling good dessert from the past that has gained new social acceptance. Older editions of "The Joy of Cooking" and "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" include it, as do regional Southern cookbooks, especially those from Louisiana where French is basic culinary language. As part of the glorification of traditional American food, creme brulee is now competing with such perennials as chocolate mousse to become a standard restaurant dessert.

In most renditions, a smooth, rich custard is topped with brown sugar that is then caramelized under the broiler. As it cools, the sugar becomes brittle and crunchy and sometimes so hard that it must be cracked with a sharp blow from a spoon.

The name creme brulee is French for burned cream and refers to the "burning" of the sugar topping. In old cookbooks, the dish may be called "burnt custard." In some versions, the sugar is caramelized separately and mixed with the custard rather than forming a glaze on top. This follows the pattern of the traditional American burnt sugar cake and burnt sugar icing, which contain caramelized sugar mixed with water.

In his book "American Food" (E.P. Dutton: 1975), Evan Jones writes that creme brulee originated in a grilled cream served at King's College, Cambridge, England in the 17th Century. The "American Heritage Cookbook" (American Heritage Publishing Co.), published in 1964, contains a recipe for the dessert adapted from one employed by Thomas Jefferson's French cook.

Newly fashionable in California, creme brulee was in actuality here before the turn of the century. A book titled "Three Meals a Day" by Maude C. Cooke, dated 1887, includes two versions of "burnt cream." The title page lacks publishing information, but a full-page photograph of the San Francisco Call Building at the beginning of the book indicates that it was at least distributed in that city.

Cooke made one version of the dessert with boiled custard, the other with cream boiled with cinnamon stick, lemon peel and sugar and then mixed with egg yolks. Since cooks of the day lacked modern broilers, they were instructed to brown the sugar topping with a salamander or with a clean fire shovel heated red hot.

Contemporary recipes range from the classic plain custard topped with crisp sugar to variations that include fruits and liqueurs and one that is presented in a pastry crust.

An example of the first is Elka Gilmore's Creme Brulee from Camelions. Gilmore describes her rendition as "an enriched version of the classic French recipe." Lusciously thick, smooth and full tasting, the custard consists of vanilla-flavored whipping cream mixed with egg yolks and sugar. The classic French topping would be white sugar, Gilmore says, but she uses brown, spreading it in a pan to dry and then pulverizing it in a food processor.

Laurent Quenioux of the Seventh Street Bistro departs from the currently popular crusted creme brulees by stirring the melted sugar into the custard. This gives the custard a caramel taste, which is "the real flavor, the true flavor," he says." According to Quenioux, the crustless version came about because French kitchens, including that of the Parisian bistro where he once worked, did not have the equipment to toast the sugar topping.

Quenioux's recipe includes rasperries. He also suggests adding blueberries, blackberries, loganberries, kiwi or chestnuts in syrup.

Like Quenioux, Norbert Schulz of Norbert's in Santa Barbara adds fruit to the custard, varying the fruit according to what is available. One week he might use pears, another week raspberries in combination with Frangelico liqueur, another time blackberries. Schulz might also flavor the custard with lemon or add pecans instead of fruit.

Since creme brulee has so much sugar on top, many cooks add little or no sweetening to the custard. When making his pear creme brulee, Schulz adds only two tablespoons of sugar to a quart of whipping cream, eight egg yolks and two pears. Deviating from other chefs, he tops the dessert with granulated instead of brown sugar.

A very simple creme brulee comes from Geoffrey's in Malibu. Aside from the brown sugar topping, the recipe calls for only four ingredients--whipping cream, sugar, egg yolks and amaretto liqueur. And the procecure is simple enough for a novice.

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