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An Old Flame

July 28, 2002|PHIL BARBER

It seemed like a fair trade.

We were visiting my English relatives, and they offered us free run of their spacious London home as well as occupancy of their 400-year-old weekend house in a Welsh village, subway maps, expensive cheese and the entertainment value of a quarrelsome and idiosyncratic family. In return I offered the services of my wife, who was then indentured to a popular Napa Valley restaurant.

"She's a pastry chef," I said.

The reply was a rousing plea for creme brulee.

The primary advocate was my cousin George, then 17. As one of the world's foremost admirers of creme brulee, George could not bear to wait for his sugar-capped custard to cool. So he kenneled the family dogs-Barnsbury and Finsbury, with their floppy ears and Vienna sausage-like legs-and set his ramekin in the cold, damp air of the patio. Off to receive his obligatory 8 p.m. teenage phone call, George's instructions were specific: Do not, under any circumstances, let the dogs out.

Ah, the British can be so gullible. (Remember the Spice Girls?) We spread a little leftover custard in a ramekin, swapped it for my cousin's and released the hounds before he returned to the kitchen. His upper lip losing its stiffness at the sight of the lapping Barney and Finney, George raged at us all until we burst out laughing.

His obsession with creme brulee might be bred, for the English have enjoyed this delicacy at least since the beginning of the 18th century, when they were calling it "burnt cream." The French term existed before that. Francois Massialot mentioned it in his epic 'Le Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois' in 1691.

True, the two nations were said to produce slightly different versions. The French dessert called for milk, some sugar in the custard and a paper-thin, crumbly crust. The Brits improved the recipe by using heavy cream and opted to forgo the sugar in the mix and to bake a thicker, more impenetrable layer of sugar.

There are those who insist you should never pair an English custard with a French mantle, or vice-versa. I say suit your own tastes. You can even gild the concoction slightly with chocolate, raspberries, Grand Marnier or coffee. Though brimming with foreign accent marks and hoity-toity connotations, creme brulee is surprisingly easy to execute. Just don't add the scalded cream too quickly or bake the custard too long, or you'll cook your egg yolks. Of course, it's the brulee end-the broiling-that makes people jittery. Professional chefs use a salamander, which used to mean something akin to a branding iron but now refers to a high-powered, flame-top broiling oven. A small butane torch gives the most control. But a standard broiler works, too, if you retrieve the goods somewhere between caramelization and incineration.

Finally, don't be fooled by creme brulee's biggest turnoff: its ubiquity. Yes, every restaurant offers it. But they all serve bread and water, too. Just think of creme brulee as a staple rather than fad.

Creme Brulee

Serves 6

2 1/2 cups heavy cream

8 egg yolks

1/3 cup sugar

1 pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

12 teaspoons sugar

Bring cream to simmer on stove top. In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks, sugar and salt until blended. Slowly whisk in hot cream, then stir in vanilla. Divide mixture among 6 ramekins. Place them in baking pan and carefully pour boiling water into pan until ramekins are half-submerged. Bake at 300 degrees for 35-40 minutes, until just set. Remove from pan, cool at room temperature, then chill thoroughly. When ready to serve, sprinkle 2 teaspoons sugar over each custard. Place ramekins under hot broiler for several seconds, until sugar melts and caramelizes. Remove immediately and serve.

*

Phil Barber last wrote for the magazine on fish paste.

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