Sunday, 9 November 2014

Written without my glasses: Beryl Reid's creme brûlée recipe

When I was a very small child, my parents made a bit of extra cash letting out the spare room to actors who were in the city for short spells with Bristol Old Vic - it was something a lot of Bristolians did and still do. One memorable guest was Beryl Reid, an English actress well known for her role as Grandma Mole in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, who must've stayed with us in the early 1980s. According to my parents, Beryl was not happy about the noise my younger brother and I used to make when we woke up, as her life as an actor meant for late nights and late mornings. But she did enjoy eating (and almost certainly drinking) with us from time to time.

My parents are immensely outgoing and love nothing better than an impromptu dinner guest, and I can imagine that playing host to up-and-coming actors was irresistible to them. A fantastic cook, my dad has countless books stuffed with hastily-scribbled recipes documenting his favourite meals of the time, and it was among these I came across the recipe for Beryl's creme brulee.

Scrawled on her own headed notepaper, Beryl has crossed out her name, instead giving the recipe the caveat 'Written without my glasses'. Despite this, the recipe begins well - quantities look ok, the writing is just about legible. Beryl does not pull any punches: she expects the reader to know how to make an egg custard, and writes in a heavily abbreviated fashion. However, around half-way down the page things get a little indecipherable - her hand becomes looser, the instructions more vague. It doesn't instill a cook with the kind of hand-holding security we've come to expect from recipe books today. To bring things up-to-date I've played around with the recipe, filled in the gaps and tested for myself, and have come up with the following fail-safe tribute.

Beryl's Brulee
Serves 2

1/2 pt (284ml) double cream
1/2 tsp real vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
4 level tbsp caster sugar
4 tbsp demerara sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2.
2. Pour the cream into a heavy bottomed pan and set over a medium heat.
3. Whisk the egg yolks together with the caster sugar in a roomy, heatproof bowl, combining well.
4. When the cream has reached a steady simmer, add the vanilla extract.
5. Pour the cream onto the egg/sugar mixture, stirring all the time.
6. Place two ramekins into a large, deep oven tray, and pour half the custard mixture into each.
7. Pour hot water into the oven tray to create a bain marie (water bath) - the water should come half way up the ramekins.
8. Carefully place the tray into the centre of the oven, and cook for 30-35 minutes.
9. Remove the tray from the oven, and the ramekins from the water. Place in the fridge until completely cool.
10. Just before you wish to serve the brulees, switch on the grill. Sprinkle the brulee tops with the demerara sugar, making sure you cover the surface evenly and the sugar goes right to the edge of the dish.
11. Finish the tops under a grill (the Reid way), or with a culinary blowtorch (the modern way) - either way be careful the sugar doesn't burn. As Beryl says, you want a finish that's 'brown, even and shiny'.

I like to serve these dusted with icing sugar and with a few berries on the plate, but pudding purists may like an unadulterated creme brulee. The fun part is cracking through that caramelised top, so all that's really needed is a sharp spoon and a hearty appetite.
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