Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell caught my eye from its place on the new non-fiction bookcase on the second floor of the Watertown Public Library. In the back of my mind I recalled that I had a package of Crème Brulee dessert mix in my kitchen cabinet that I had mistakenly purchased but had not been motivated to make as it required whipping cream.
Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee… presents life in Paris during the time that Thomas Jefferson arrived there in 1784 with his 10 year-old daughter Patsy, and James Hemings, his servant, who was actually a half-sibling to Mr. Jefferson’s deceased wife Martha. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin had been residing in Paris since the late 1770s. In his writings, John Adams provides a marvelously detailed picture of Franklin’s life in Paris.
Once settled in Paris, Jefferson apprenticed James Hemings to a restaurateur named Combeaux, who also operated a catering business. Jefferson paid Combeaux 150 francs to teach James the art of French cuisine. Jefferson entertained often and each dinner party was an opportunity for James to display his newly acquired skills.
A few of the recipes that James mastered in France have survived—eight of them, written in his own hand-- including burnt cream or crème brulee. This particular recipe starts out with boiling 2 quarts of milk with a large piece of orange peel and, when it is cool, taking ½ lb. of sugar, the yolks of 7 eggs and whites of 2 well beaten and stirring them into the boiled milk with 2-3 handfuls of flour. The mixture is put through a sieve, put over heat and stirred until it thickens. An ounce of fresh butter is added and then it is poured into a deep dish and cooled. Sugar is sprinkled over the top and is glazed “with a hot shovel. Flavour it with essence of lemon or any thing you like.” (The actual recipe is shown on the back book jacket of the book.)
I am now inspired. I have purchased a carton of whipping cream just in time for the holidays. Coming right up--Crème Brulee!”
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Written by Reference Librarian Ellie.