Amélie’s crème brûlée and the Café des 2 Moulins
Amélie Poulain cultivates a taste for small pleasures, such as turning around in the darkness of the movie theater to look at other viewers’ faces, dipping her hand into grain sacks... but above all cracking crème brûlée with a teaspoon. A modern-day fairy, seemingly naïve and asexual, the protagonist of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 movie has made viewers of all ages dream, sometimes even setting them off. Like it or not, the movie deserves the credit of having created a contemporary fantasy-comedy, a Parisian fairy tale that represents protagonist’s personal growth through a series of images full of magic and suggestions. It is also thanks to the movie that the Café des 2 Moulins – it takes its name from the two nearby Moulin Rouge and Moulin de La Galette – was able to recover from financial hardship. Chosen as location for several scenes (this is where Amélie works), the café-brasserie in the Pigalle district has made a comeback and is now decorated with photos and objects that recall the movie.
History of crème brûlée
But let's go back to food: the iconic scene in which Amélie cracks the crème brûlée with a teaspoon has brought back one of the most famous spoon desserts of all time, very similar to crema catalana. Amélie’s beloved dessert seems to derive from the English burnt cream, which was served at Trinity College in Cambridge. In the beginning it was prepared with the college logo impressed on top with a branding iron, becoming then a canteen staple. Actually, similar recipes were already prepared in the English countryside in the sixteenth century: during the milking period, when surplus milk was particularly rich, women used to prepare a sort of very thick custard in order to use it up and repay their husbands’ hard work. The burning of the sugar topping was the extra touch added by the British college, where it is called Trinity Cream.
Crème brûlée in France and America
The earliest known recipe for crème brûlée appeared in the 1691 French cookbook Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois by chef François Massialot. His recipe was slightly different: a disc of caramelized sugar was placed onto the custard, instead of burning the sugar directly on the dessert. The dessert has gained more and more international popularity, for example in America, where it was even served by Thomas Jefferson at the White House. It also appeared in every American magazine and cookbook in the 1950s and ‘60s, but the breakthrough came with ‘Le Cirque’, one of the most famous and refined restaurants in New York City, that included it in its menu. It became so wildly popular in America, so much so to give life to crème brûlée ice creams, donuts, cupcakes and cakes.
Crème brûlée and crema catalana
Spain has also tried to take the credit, however the history of crema catalana is very different. Legend has it that it was the Catalan nuns who invented it in occasion of a visiting bishop: originally it was supposed to be a pudding, but it came out too runny and so they sprinkled some hot caramelized sugar on top in order to hide the mistake. Unlike its French cousin, the crema catalana is flavored with cinnamon and prepared with milk, without the addition of cream, in a saucepan, while the crème brûlée in a bain-marie. The common hallmark feature? Amélie’s beloved crust, which is obtained by burning the sugar sprinkled over the freshly baked cream with a blowtorch.
by Michela Becchi