There is a bit of a debate to be had on where the crème brûlée comes from. It sounds French, but uses crème anglais, which is essentially British custard. The dish was first recorded in France by François Massialot in 1691, where he describes it as ‘English cream;’ and therein lies the confusion. Did the Brits invent the dish, or did the French take custard and burn it? I am inclined towards the latter explanation. I imagine that the French took British custard, set it, added a sugar topping and grilled it. The Brits were still making gruel in 1691.
In any case, crème brûlée is set custard with a burned sugar crust. As such it is all great fun to produce with a blowtorch, but it is a bloody boring dessert. I have always thought it was a bit shit, and recently Jamie Oliver appeared on TV/YouTube and said exactly the same thing – crème brûlée is OK, but it needs a fruit base.
Oliver suggested raspberries, but I immediately thought about rhubarb. If crème brûlée is custard, then this surely demands rhubarb, because the Brits love rhubarb and custard. The problem with stewed rhubarb is that it looks like an unappetising, olive-green, stringy mass of school dinners. That does not a good dessert make.
Enter Michel Roux Jnr, who, on a UK TV show this month, said something in passing that made me drop my metaphysical rhubarb mike. Grenadine. Stew your rhubarb in grenadine. As soon as you hear that, it all makes sense – the colour is there, the sugar proportions are correct, and it adds additional fruit flavours. So here is my rhubarb crème brûlée started with a glug of grenadine. You are going to love this.
Creams, just after the blowtorch
Crème brûlée à la rhubarbe
- Two sticks of rhubarb from any part of the season
- 4 tbsp grenadine (available in most supermarkets, usually near the spirits)
- 6 egg yolks
- 75g caster sugar
- 600ml double cream
- 1 vanilla pod, seeds stripped, or 2 tsp vanilla paste
- Shaker full of icing sugar
First stew your rhubarb. Take the rhubarb and put in in a pan with the grenadine. Heat gently until all the pieces of fruit are soft and and can be cut with a spoon. Chill.
Make a custard the usual way: Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until pale. Gently heat the cream, with the vanilla seeds and pod (or paste) included, in a large saucepan until it just boils and climbs sides of the pan. If you used a pod, fish it out and discard. Add half of the cream to the egg yolks and whisk up. Add the egg and cream mixture back to the pan with the rest of the cream. Whisk continuously while increasing the temperature to 80˚C (it helps to use a digital thermometer). Take off the heat, cool to just above room temperature, and crack some prosecco. You just made custard.
Share the cooled rhubarb between four ramekins, and share the cooled custard in the same way. You may have some materials left over – you can churn the custard to make ice cream, and even add leftover stewed rhubarb and make rhubarb ice cream.
Chill the creams in the fridge for at least 6 hours, but preferably overnight.
When ready to serve, dust the creams with quite a good coating of icing sugar from a shaker.
Use a blowtorch to gently caramelise the sugar to create the classic crispy top. You cannot do this bit the day before or the caramel will lose its crisp. Sorry.
Cool a little and serve.
If you are unsure of your custard skills, make more than you need. This means that if you do burn some to the bottom of the pan, you won't be tempted to use lumpy pan scrapings to make up the volume. Just remember to do everything gently and use a way bigger pan than you think you need because the cream triples in volume when it boils. One key technical point is that all this can be made the day before (and it's better if you do so you are sure the custard sets), but you cannot put the icing sugar on and burn it the day before. It will go soft overnight.