One may suppose Catalonia gave birth to this custardy treat, but its provincial origins, and even its national identity (but more on that later), are unclear.
Traditionally, crema Catalana or crema de Sant Josep, as it is parochially referred to, was made by grandmothers and maiden aunts and served in a shallow earthenware dish only on Saint Joseph’s day on 19 March, the Spanish equivalent of Father’s Day. Today, the dessert is enjoyed year round in Spain, and its preparation is no longer the sole domain of grandmas and single aunties. There are many commercial powdered custard preparations on the market but, as many a chef will argue, there is no substitute for an old-fashioned stove-top custard.
Both the French and British also lay claim to the origins of similar, better-known, versions of the dessert, crème brûlée and burnt cream respectively. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Catalan cream predates the French and British versions, which both make an appearance in literature during the 17th century. The main difference between the Spanish recipe and that of the French and Brits is that crema Catalana is made from a mixture of milk and cream with a distinctive spicing of citrus peel and cinnamon and the custard is set by chilling, while crème brûlée and burnt cream are made from cream alone and set by baking in a bain-marie.
Regardless of the dish’s etymology, the key to all three is to set the custard in a shallow enough dish to ensure an even ratio of crackly burnt sugar to gooey custard.