It all started in the late 1600s when a Parisian chef named Francois Massiolot decided to set his sweets on fire.
This spark of imagination ultimately blazed a new trail in the confections category and Massiolot’s dish is as relevant today as it was 325 years ago.
But despite its dominance as a dessert, some local chefs have moved it closer to the top of the menu instead of burying it near the bottom.
Crème brulee. It’s not just for nightcaps anymore.
One of Chef Ginny Wooters’ first experiences with the intentional burning of dairy products was at Tucson’s Canyon Ranch in the early days of her culinary career, and she fondly recounted to me the tasty result when one of the cooks put some parmesan cheese in a pie tin and burned it to a crisp.
“That great aroma, the taste, the texture; it started with that tuile of burned cheese and I’ve loved all kinds of brulees ever since,” said Wooters, executive chef and partner at Commoner & Co., 6960 E. Sunrise Drive.
Classically prepared, crème brulee is a rich and sweet custard topped with a burnt sugar shell, but Wooters has discovered that the brulee technique works well on many dishes, at any time, and in any course, of a meal.
Commoner & Co. has always rotated a bruleed cheese tart on its appetizer menu, with the current version consisting of Maytag blue cheese, sour cream, and cream cheese, spooned onto a ginger snap crust, topped with a little dusting of sugar, and quickly torched to create that crunchy top layer.
Wooters calls this dish a “fun play on sweet and savory,” noting the richness of the caramelized blue cheese, the sweetness rendered by the brulee, and the “beautiful fall flavors” from the ginger snap crust.
Whether you’re burning cheese or anything else dairy, Wooters says it adds a new dimension and definition to a dish, with truly transformative flavors.
“I mean, the burnt cheese is always the best part of the pizza, right?”
One of Wooters’ brulee brothers is Chef Jonathan Stutzman, who has also been using a torch to burn foods since his early days in the kitchen.
“I’ve been playing with this technique for years because it’s fun to do and a cool way to push culinary boundaries,” said Stutzman, executive chef at the Omni Tucson National Resort, 2727 W. Club Drive.
Stutzman tells me that his first brulee expression, an oatmeal brulee, has become one of his signature dishes and has been featured on the resort’s breakfast menu for years.
“The classic oatmeal experience includes brown sugar and raisins, so I thought about taking something really good and making it great with a brulee,” he said. He even brulees slices of bananas for the oatmeal to maximize its caramelization quotient.
With a passion for torched-foods, Stutzman recently challenged his team to create a brulee dish for the new bar menu at the resort’s Bob’s Steak and Chop House, and what emerged quickly became a guest favorite.
This brulee appetizer is anchored by goat cheese, into which dates, walnuts, honey, and balsamic vinegar are folded, with a hand-torched membrane of demerara sugar layered across the top.
“Many goat cheeses are a lot like Greek yogurt, with some sour and tart flavors, so it needs a little cut of sweet for balance,” Stutzman said. “The brulee does this nicely, and the textural variations from the walnuts to the candied crack of that glassy shell take something classic and simple and make it elegant.”
I think Wooters and Stutzman have tapped into something here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more chefs joining the crackle chorus.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.