Burnt custard, or as they say in France, Crème Brûlée , has not always been a popular desert. Indeed, it did not exist until it was 'discovered' quite by accident in a French kitchen by a plumber who had been called to repair a burst pipe.
In 1905 in a small restaurant in Schirmeck, Alsace, custard was being prepared by Chef Blanc when a water pipe above the work bench developed a leak. Blanc quickly shut off the water supply and called the local plumber Ancel.
Ancel set about repairing the pipe which required to be soldered. In the course of soldering the new joint, Ancel accidentally dislodged a bag of sugar from a shelf showering the small dishes of custard the Blanc had been preparing. In a panic to hide his error, Ancel set aside his blow lamp and put the sugar bag back on the shelf. While he put the sugar back, the blow lamp set fire to the sugar atop the custard. Ancel managed to dowse the flames and prevented burning down the entire restaurant.
At this point Blanc returned and to his horror he saw that all his custard in their little dishes has been coated with a layer of burnt sugar which had now set solid.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” he asked angrily of Ancel.
Being a practical sort of man, Ancel suggested breaking the sugar layer and removing it.
“How am I supposed to do that” retorted Blanc
Ancel took a spoon and whacked the top of one of the custards with the back of a spoon and the sugar layer cracked easily but became mixed with the custard.
“Sacred blue” cried Blanc, “My customers cannot eat that! Burnt sugar and custard just do not combine well. Bitter sharp burnt sugar and sweet smooth creamy custard, it is a disaster! You have brûléed my crème”
Meanwhile Ancel sheepishly licked the spoon and could not suppress the feeling of pleasure as the sweet creamy custard smoothed the sharp edges of the bitter burnt sugar, blending into an oral and digestive pleasure he had never before experienced.
“What are you smiling about?” shouted Blanc
“This crème that I brûléed is the best desert I have ever tasted in any restaurant” said Ancel as he continued to spoon the heavenly mixture into his mouth.
Cautiously Blanc tried a taste of the strange mixture and after assessing five more dishes was forced to agree with Ancel.
“You are right Ancel, this is marvelous”, said Blanc “ I must make more. Show me how you did it”
“You show me your custard recipe and I will show you how I did it” replied Ancel
The two co-operated and thus Crème Brûlée was born.
Blanc went on to become a famous chef endorsing various kitchen gadgets including a line of chefs' blowtorches. Ancel gave up plumbing and founded a factory in France producing custard powder.
Hat tip to Charles Lamb.