If you had hung out at the pastry station of any swank restaurant in the mid-'80s, you would have seen a hundred little ramekins of custard and one young woman, armed with a blowtorch and goggles, blasting the tops of each of them as if they were Space Invaders, transmuting brown sugar with blue flame into heaving bubbles, creeping rivulets and finally a crisp, treacherous, superheated membrane like the skin that forms over cooling lava. Creme brulee was the '80s in Los Angeles, the 1,400-calorie dessert taken after two hours of step aerobics and a virtuous meal of grilled swordfish and Perrier.
A lot of people I know like to cross-reference creme brulee with the sight of Martha Stewart bending over in tight pants to sear puddings with a blowtorch, but I tend to think of it as synonymous with a particular aspect of rock & roll, for example Veruca Salt's Louise Post practically fainting with pleasure over the creme brulee at New Orleans' Palace Cafe, or Snoop Doggy Dogg extremely happy about a tart he's found on a record-company buffet.
I have seen Madonna in a creme brulee frenzy, spooning up bites of half a dozen people's desserts as she worked the room in the first weeks of Hollywood Canteen. Sonic Youth sings a song about, or at least called, “Creme Brulee” – “scrape-scrape-scrapin' melted cheese/Say 'I love you' later, please.”
Courtney Love once described the music industry as “all the posturing, all the shit . . . all the creme brulee,” and if you read many fanzines around the time of the grunge boom, you saw a lot of references to the expensive dinners – invariably capped with oceans of creme brulee – that underground bands were able to cadge from A&R executives looking for the next Nirvana. (Hair bands, one assumes, far more eager to sell out, were tempted instead with the pizza and porno stars at the Rainbow.)
To a generation, creme brulee became a symbol of the sweetness of selling out, of the unimaginable pleasures available on the other side of the velvet rope in a way that neither the vulgarity of chocolate mousse cake nor the hominess of brown butter tart could ever hope to match. You may eat better Thai food than corporate lawyers do when you're young and poor, and the superripe oranges at Grand Central Market are sweeter than the dollar-a-pound Valencias you can buy in Beverly Hills, but you're never going to taste creme brulee without access to an American Express card. It is a testament to the dessert that so many people are actually tempted by the Faustian bargain it poses.
Unlike an egg custard (whose faint sulfurousness hints at laundry to be done), a flan (floors to be scrubbed) or the sharply bitter note of a good creme caramel (contemptible bourgeois contentment), the soft, numbing density of creme brulee intimates nothing but itself, sweetness without end, richness without measure, smoothness that melts to liquid on your tongue.
Creme brulee is actually a fairly easy dish to make in your own kitchen. You can buy the ingredients even at a 7-Eleven, the procedures are simple, and the sheer overload of butterfat means that the custard is fairly slow to separate.
But the homely magnificence of the ingredients, the quart of heavy cream, cup of sugar and eight egg yolks in a good creme brulee, is too daunting for most home cooks, as shameful to admit to oneself as the pound of butter and half-pound of Valrhona bittersweet included in recipes for chocolate truffles. Plus, you really need that blowtorch – people will tell you that you can glaze creme brulee under an ordinary broiler, but you run a fairly high risk of curdling the custard underneath. Even Williams-Sonoma addicts don't usually have blowtorches sitting in their kitchen drawers next to the tea balls . . . creme brulee is a restaurant dish.
Creme brulee is not, as you might think, one of the glories of French cuisine. Most food historians place the origin of creme brulee in England, a country where the words pudding and dessert are virtually synonymous. Something very like creme brulee has been around since at least the 17th century, much of that time in the dining hall at Trinity College, Cambridge.
The current tide of creme brulee is generally acknowledged to have originated at the celebrity-infested Le Cirque in Manhattan 15 years ago, and something like 90 out of 100 full-fat creme brulee recipes adhere to the basic Le Cirque formula of warm, vanilla-infused cream beaten into egg yolks, baked and chilled.
The creme brulee thing in Los Angeles probably started (as did almost every local foodstuff even remotely Gallic) with Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage in the late '70s, though Bertranou called for the custard to be cooked over a stove rather than in an oven. Bertranou's pastry chef, Jimmy Brinkley, took creme brulee to Michael's when that restaurant opened in 1978 – he served it in a tart shell with berries. Brinkley's assistant, Nancy Silverton, started making it at Spago when that restaurant opened in 1982, and from there it became the emblematic L.A. dish, the shallow layer of pudding with the crackly burnt-sugar top, until L.A. French cooking was overtaken a few years later by the Tuscan guys with their tiramisu.
But creme brulee is still with us. If you pay attention these days, you might run across chocolate creme brulee, pumpkin creme brulee, coffee, mango, citrus or coconut creme brulee, creme brulee tostadas and creme brulee napoleons, creme brulee with berries, creme brulee flavored with the goat's-milk caramel called cajeta. Creme brulee is, in one estimate, the third most popular syrup for flavored coffee. The Chez, a hotel restaurant south of Beverly Hills, includes on its breakfast menu something called “oatmeal brulee.” A new creme brulee cookbook, containing 100 variations on the dish, just hit the stores this month.
I haven't eaten much creme brulee since Tulipe, with its excellent green-anise-flavored version, closed down a few years ago – the hot dessert in town now, after all, is either the Kaiserschnorren at Spago or the cardamom cake with blue cheese ice cream at Monrovia's Devon – but I nurture my rare cravings with the absolutely classic creme brulee served at Mimosa, the staggeringly intense version at Barfly and the chocolate-tinged version at Citrus.
In the late '90s, it seems, pure sensory overload may no longer be enough.
“Oh hell, I'll admit it,” says Silverton. “I'm not proud of it, but I may have started the revisionist school of creme brulee with the trio of them in sake cups I came up with for Chinois, flavored with mint, ginger and orange, over little circles of cake. But I haven't made a creme brulee since I don't know when – I moved on to panna cotta years ago.”
Recommended creme brulee: Mimosa, 8009 Beverly Blvd., (213)655-8895; Barfly, 755 N. La Cienega, (310)657-8787; Citrus, 6703 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, (213)857-0034.