Food Historian Recreates 18th-century Version of Crème Brûlée, Cooked over Fire

Nov 16, 2017

Ali Berlow went to speak with a food historian in Plymouth about cooking with smoke-and-fire and historic cooking techniques. The last thing she expected was dessert.

It begins with the sound of sugar as it’s being caramelized with a red-hot iron cooking tool called a salamander. It wasn’t hard to fall under the salamander’s spell as Paula Marcoux, the cook by the fire, gently waved this thing like a magic wand over a dessert she was making called Burnt Cream.

And oh man…the smell of that sugar…this tool, the salamander looks like long, lean badminton racket. I thought it was named after the shape of the amphibian, but that’s not the case at all. And besides, it doesn’t even look like a salamander, not really. The etymology of the word is Old French for "legendary lizard-like creature that can live in fire” according to How appropriate. Paula kept it in the hot coals till it was ready to do its alchemy - turn the sugar topping into a thin layer of caramel.

Paula Marcoux: The very earliest recipes for things, American recipes, things like macaroni and cheese, or gratins, they put the crumbs on top and then you hold a salamander over it.

AB: Most of us today would use a broiler or a mini-butane torch to brown toppings and caramelize sugar. But not Paula, the coolest historian you ever want to cook with.

According to her, Burnt Cream is an 18th century English version of today’s crème brulee. Sweet and smooth, with a thin-crunch of golden sugar on top - it is simple and delicious: Milk, cream, cornstarch, egg yolks for thickeners… lemon peel and cinnamon stick for aromatics, sugar for sweetness.

PM: It’s exactly from a historic recipe. I didn’t change anything about it. And it’s delicious. It’s not like it doesn’t appeal to our modern tastes, it tastes perfectly good. You know an egg yolk hasn’t changed in size that much and the weight of sugar hasn’t changed at all and the volume amount of cream hasn’t changed. A quart of cream is a quart of cream or milk.

AB: Paula wants you to try recipes from the past. Not just your grandmother’s casseroles but old recipes. Like from history books and literature.

PM: When you do one of these recipes you can be pretty confident you’re making exactly what was intended.

AB: And Paula wants us to use the tools from the past too. Like the salamander and your fireplace too.

PM: I really, really encourage people to look at their fireplaces for all they can cook in them because there’s just…pretty much you can do pretty much anything. People have cooked a lot of food, short of maybe microwaving and sous-vide, people have been cooking a lot of different ways in their fireplaces for a long, long time.

AB: Just like in any cooking process, technique. Even when making something as simple, historic and lovely as Burnt Cream.

PM: The first time I made it I tried to hold it over it and it was not doing very much… but fortunately it was at a party and I’d been drinking so my hand wasn’t very steady and I slipped and touch it and then it worked.  So that’s how I learned that you actually have to touch the iron to it. So drinking’s not always evil. Sometimes it’s a good helpful tool.

 AB: Paula’s rules, as I see them? Cook with fire, try old things and drink resourcefully.

Ali Berlow  is the author of The Food Activist's Handbook


From Paula Marcoux:  ‘Cooking with Fire; From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes that Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking’. 

Both the technique and the scenting with lemon peel and cinnamon make this 18th-centry English member of the crème brulee family a dead ringer for the cream cremada still served in Catalonia.

2 cups of milk

1 cup cream

1 lemon peel (white pith excluded)

1 3-inch cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons cornstarch (white flour in original recipe, but cornstarch makes a nicer texture)

1/3 cup and ¾ organic sugar, separately

5 egg yolks

Makes 6-8 servings

"Excerpted from Cooking with Fire (c) Paula Marcoux. Used with permission of Storey Publishing."

HERE is a video to see how the caramelizing with a salamander is done. 

The Local Food Report is produced by Atlantic Public Media