Baked cream-rich custard, usually now flavoured with vanilla, and topped with a sugar crust caramelised under a very high heat, by grilling, by flame or by igniting a thin layer of spirits on top. Usually served cold in individual ramekins. (cf. 'Cornish Burnt Cream, Cheshire Pudding').
The Trinity Crest on a burned cream
Burnt Cream (French; crème brulee) is often though to be a French invention, indeed the first written reference we can find to it is in François Massialot's 'Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois' of 1691, but he calls it 'crème à l'Angloise' and offers the option of adding orange-water. It appears in Nutt 1789, while the version in Moxon 1764 and Eaton 1822 flavour the custard with cinnamon.
It has been associated, since at least the late 19th Century, with Trinity College, Cambridge, where the college arms are customarily impressed on top of the cream with a branding iron.
Original Receipt in 'English Housewifry' by Elizabeth Moxon, 1764 (Moxon 1764)
33. BURNT CREAM.
Boil a stick of cinnamon in a pint of cream, four eggs well beat, leaving out two whites, boil the cream and thicken it with the eggs as for a custard; then put it in your dish, and put over it half a pound of loaf sugar beat and searc'd; heat a fire-shovel red-hot, and hold it over the top till the sugar be brown. So serve it up.
Original Receipt in the 'The Accomplished Housekeeper, and Universal Cook' by T. Williams, 1797
Boil a pint of cream with sugar and a little lemon peel shred fine. Beat the yolks of six and the whites of four eggs separately and when the cream is cold put in your eggs with a spoonful of orange flower water and one of fine flour. Set it over the fire keep stirring it till it is thick, and then put into a dish. When it is cold sift a quarter of a pound of sugar all over it, and brown it with a hot salamander till it looks like a glass plate put over your cream.
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