Founding Father Foodie: Thomas Jefferson and French Cuisine

Thomas Jefferson collected recipes and left notes on refining the tastes of simple fare like apple dumplings and beef stew for fifty-eight years. The 3rd President of the United States was a foodie who agreed wholeheartedly with Jean Jacques Regis de Cambaceres, an 18th century French politician, that is was mainly through the table that one governs.

When given the opportunity to go to France, he struck a deal with a 19 year old slave named James Hemings. Young James was to master the art of French cooking, and help Jefferson introduce Americans to the style of cooking that hundreds of years later made Julia Child a star. In return, James would be granted his freedom.  It's widely reported that it was James Hemings' cuisine that put Alexander Hamilton into a good enough mood to compromise over the location on the U.S. capitol in July of 1790.


No doubt that had Jefferson been born in the 20th century, he'd have been an avid food blogger or possibly a cooking channel contestant! In February of 1796, freeman James Hemings headed to Philadelphia to find work as a cook.  His favorite desserts almost always employed delicate custards. So in honor of the Jefferson-Hemings 18th century foodie collaboration, I offer you a lovely crème brûlée recipe. The first thing you need to know: it's easier than you might think.

Lemon Crème Brûlée
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 egg yolks
1 and 1/2 cup light cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons lemon curd
extra sugar for burnt sugar finish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Whisk egg yolks, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons sugar together in a bowl. In a saucepan, combine cream with 1/4 cup sugar; dissolve on medium heat until steaming. slowly add cream mixture to yolks, whisking constantly. whisk curd into mixture. Pour mixture equally into ramekins and bake in a hot water bath for 30-35 minutes until centers softly set.

Remove from oven to cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Refrigerate at least an hour. Just before serving, sprinkle one teaspoon white sugar and use a kitchen torch to burn until you have a blistered and bubbly tortoiseshell covering on top. Let it sit a few minutes to harden. Makes four people happy or two people happy twice.

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