The year was 1991. I was in Paris (for the first time) all alone to take part of a workshop to launch the sequencing of the genome of Mycobacterium leprae. In those days sequencing the full genome of any organism was a daunting task, and I was thrilled to be a tiny part of that initial effort.  I had two free weekends to explore the city. One sunny Saturday I walked for about 6 hours with a stop for lunch in a small bistrot. I asked for a gratin dauphinoise.  Halfway through lunch, I bit into something very hard.  It was a piece of broken glass that somehow found its way into the gratin!  My French was rudimentary, but I felt I needed to inform the waitress because someone could  get hurt from it.  I did my best to communicate, and was absolutely non-confrontational. It is actually very hard to be confrontational if you are not fluent in a language, did you know that? Also impossible to tell a joke, so do not try that in French until you can read Proust without the help of a dictionary.  😉

The waitress was livid!  She profusely apologized, offered to bring me another meal, but I told it was not necessary.   She then said a bunch of things too quickly for me to comprehend,  ended with a question that I also could not quite get, so I just smiled.  I thought she was going to bring me the check and call it a day, but instead she came back with the owner of the bistrot, who asked if I had ever had crème brûlée.  Crème quoi????  She opened a huge smile, went back to the kitchen, and returned with a tray. On the tray, a small dish, a bowl of sugar, and….  a blow torch!  She caramelized the sugar right in front of me, filling the room with that unique aroma, and handing me the best dessert I had ever tasted in my 31 years of life!   Unforgettable! And, they did not let me pay a single franc for anything! 

Crème brûlée became my favorite dessert, I tried it at every opportunity since then, but they never quite matched my first encounter.  There was something about hitting the exact proportion of sugar crust to the smooth custard underneath, or maybe it was just the full experience, the fear of speaking up about the glass in my food, and the unexpected reward…  Who knows?

My version joins the French classic of my past with a Canadian-American flavor I’m quite fond of: maple syrup.


(inspired by a recipe from Jacques Torres)

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 vanilla bean
1 whole egg
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
7 tablespoons maple syrup
Turbinado sugar to caramelize the top

Heat the oven to 325 F.Pour the heavy cream and half-and-half into a  saucepan and place over medium heat. Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, and scrape the seeds from the skin, adding them to the simmering cream, together with the leftover bean.
Scald the cream by heating it until bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat.In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the whole egg, egg yolks,  maple syrup and sugar until well blended. Continue to whisk while slowly pouring the hot cream into the egg mixture and whisk until the mixture is smooth and homogenous in color. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the vanilla bean pieces and any pieces of cooked egg.
Add the custard to ramekins filling them almost to the top.  Bake in the heated oven inside a large baking pan with hot water coming up halfway up the sides of the molds.  Bake for approximately 40 minutes.  Check after 35 minutes, the custard should tremble slightly when shaken, forming a little wave in the center of the ramekin, but not on the edges.Remove the molds from the water bath and place on a cooling rack for 30 minutes. Then refrigerate for 2 hours (or for to 3 days) before serving.
At serving time, sprinkle each custard homogeneously with turbinado (or demerara) sugar, and caramelize with a torch. Alternatively, you can broil the surface, but be very careful not to melt the custard underneath the sugar crust.  You can serve right away or refrigerate again.
to print the recipe, click here
 In 1991, I fell in love with Paris.  The love only kept growing stronger.
Paris will always be my home away from home…
IMG_0626By the Seine,  March 2007
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  1. Ah, what a great story… and isn’t creme brûlée exquisite!? It just so happens that I bought myself a mini blowtorch this week, so your recipe might be a keeper for me. Beats me why I waited so long to invest in one, I owned a cookware store and cooking school for a decade : )


    • Wow, you owned a cookware store and a cooking school! Amazing… amazing that you resisted getting a torch.. 🙂 Actually the one I use belongs to my beloved husband, is a small propane gas torch. Cheaper but more powerful than the little ones sold for cooking…


  2. Finding a piece of broken glass in a gratin must have been a shock. So glad it wasn’t worse.

    I love the crunchy topping of a good creme brulee with the smooth creaminess underneath. Making it in the oven under the broiler is quite hit and miss with crunchy under-bruleed and burnt sugar tops being in the majority. That’s why I usually make flan. I know a good mini torch is the answer but I’ve been ‘discouraged’ from buying one for years due to the fear of setting the kitchen on fire. 🙂


    • I sometimes get a little worried when the thing won’t turn off, but I am sure the ones sold for cooking behave better than the torch I use

      I don’t think the broiler does the same job, as you pointed out, it’s hard to get it right, maybe a professional salamander is the alternative option, but who can afford that? 😉


  3. I can’t even remember when my first creme brulee was eaten..but it definitely left an impression because it is one of my favorite desserts to this day!!

    So crazy about the glass…I’ve found hairs in my food at restaurants but never anything worse than that!


  4. Oh dear… a piece of glass, that’s no joke. I’m glad the situation was well received and handled; the French are proud folks who can be quite prickly (I can say that because I’m at least 50% French ;-)) — I find they tend to go easier on those who do not speak French in comparison to those of us who speak the language fluidly but from a different country/dialect. Crème brûlée is a beautiful thing. One of our favorite Christmas traditions. We fight over who gets to torch! :).


  5. I’m glad your story ended like it did. Maybe because you were foreign, but not American? Or perhaps, because you were simply kind about the mishap. That’s all the French want, as I’m sure you know. Politeness. Beautiful story.


  6. Oh you cutie, you! I can see you in Paris trying to explain a piece of glass in your potatoes and having no clue as to whether she understood or not. I love creme brulee and my first was rather dismal. My host had made it from a Nestle powder. It had an aftertaste I didn’t enjoy but it was fun breaking into the sugary crust.

    Your story is much much better.


  7. What a great story, Sally, and with a happy ending, no less. That’s a relief because things could have been much worse. I’ve made crème brûlée a number of times but never with maple syrup. I do love the sound of that. Maybe it’s time I break out the butane torch. It’s been far too long since it’s been put to work. 🙂


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