Creme Brulee: Put down the torch, pick up the spoon.

>One of the benefits of having a chef for a friend is that all things food become open to you. You suddenly gain deep understanding that can only come from many years of training (or an episode of Good Eats). A really good chef is also a great teacher, in my opinion. Or at least I was hoping so when I gave Mike a call.

“Oy, Mike. I want to learn how to make creme brulee. How much is a torch?” I asked.

“Don’t buy a torch. I’ll bring one. When do you want to do this?”

That is the best part of a 3-day weekend- time for cooking, eating, and recovering. Mike brought all the “necessaries” and we got to work.

When I was first started hanging out with Mike there were many dinners out in which we sampled creme brulees. Now that he has bought a condo there are fewer dinners out and more cooking sessions. And since Mike is trying to put together a cookbook that means experiments and tasty meals that I don’t have to cook- unless I want to or Mike takes over. We’ve worked out a system in which I pick a project and he directs from a chair on the other side of the kitchen so that he doesn’t feel impelled to get up and do whatever I am doing for me.

Creme brulee is one of my favorite desserts because done right it is light, creamy and flavorful without being overbearing. Chocolate can be overbearing, but a good creme brulee gives a meal a clean finish. And the best thing is it’s simple. The biggest mistake people make about creme brulee is putting it on a pedestal because it has a French name or something similarly silly. It’s custard, sillies, with a burnt sugar crust. That’s it.

Custard is basically a ratio of 8 eggs to 1 pint heavy cream. Make that milk and you have quiche. It ain’t fancy unless you doctor it a little- for example at Sonsie on Boston’s ritzy Newbury Street I had some pumpkin creme brulee with maple truiles that was stunning and delicious- quel surprise and it isn’t really bad for you. It’s actually good for carb counters. Really! The worst thing in there is the heavy cream (1 or 2 carbs). The sugar can be dealt with by subbing Splenda, but really are you going to eat it that often? No. It should be a treat, like La Maison du Chocolat or manicures. Eat it every day and it’s no fun.

After separating out 8 yolks (only screwed up twice, which means omelets on the horizon) and adding 2/3 of a cup of sugar, you have the basis for the custard.

If you can separate eggs without using an egg separator you are more of a man than Martha Stewart. Go you.

Pour 2 pints of heavy cream in a pot and generously douse with vanilla and then garnish with a bit of lemon peel, sans pith.

You heat until simmering, remove the lemon peel and pour the heated cream into the egg mixture, blending with a whisk.

The trick here is to get the cream heated just enough so that when blended it breaks down the egg yolks and dissolves the sugar- too hot and you’ve got sweet scrambled eggs, not hot enough and you’ve got grainy… eggy… stuff.

How hot is just right? Darned if I know- Mike put his finger in and said, “Yup. It’s done.” That tells me nothing, buddy. NOTHING!

Next you pour the mixture into ramekins. If you don’t have a ramekin, little casseroles will do. If you don’t have little casseroles… then you really should go to the store and get some. They are useful things to have.

I put the casserole dishes into a large Pyrex baking dish filled halfway with water that had been warmed in a pot on the stove. I’ll ‘splain the water bath later.

I poured the rest into gratin dishes and the smidge left over into a glass bowl. Yes, I said “smidge”. I also say “neat-o” and “spiffy”.

Then you bake at 350 degrees for about 45 mins.

While the creme brulee-to-be was baking, Mike made a really fantastic Guinness beef stew. Since the recipe called for only one can of brew, that meant we had to force ourselves to drink the rest of the 4 pack. Hard life, I know, but it had to be done.

By the way, room temperature Guinness is tasty. In fact most beer is quite tasty at room temperature.

Then we pulled the creme-not-yet-brulee’d out of the oven.
Purty, ain’t it? Next came the fun part: the brulee-ing.

Before I go on, let me just say that I like fire- campfire, fire roasted foods, s’mores, etc., but I am not a big fan of holding it in my hand. I remember once when I was young picking up a candle to take to my mom and looking down to see the skin on the web between my thumb and forefinger just peel away like magic. And then hurt like all heck. So the torch thing was handled with great care.

The torch was purchased at a hardware store, which is why it don’t look fancy or nothin’. After a few moments, and Mike saying, “I think you can stop now. Really, the sugar is smoking.” we had a dish of yellow custard with a hard sugar crust. Now I ‘splain the water bath to you.

Very simple. At this point you are probably talking to the screen saying, “Duh! I know this already! The water bath acts as a double boiler and gently boils the custard, which keeps moist, with the sugar further dissolving so that the custard beomes even more smooth, whereas the direct heat of the oven and subsequent baking burns off the vanilla, lemon, and anything else! Gosh!” My, aren’t you a genius.

So the custard done in the water bath was very creamy and smooth (a little runny, but it’s my first one, cut me some slack). The custard cooked on its own was eggy and a little grainy in texture.

Subsequent tastings did little to increase it’s appeal. I ended up tossing the last bite, which if you know me means I really didn’t like it- a rare thing since I will eat and/or finish just about anything put in front of me.

So there it is: creme brulee without the agony.

The Guinness stew was delicious. Mike puts some interesting stuff in there, including some sweeteners to bring out the chocolatey taste of the Guinness. The meat was spoon tender- a good thing since we were eating with spoons.

A tasty way to spend MLK’s birthday.


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