Monday, July 10, 2006

Favorite foods. crème brûlée. (Part 5).

I remember the first time I ate crème brûlée as if it had just happened, instead of almost fifteen years ago. We were vactioning on the Oregon coast, spending our days running around on the rocky beaches. After dinner one night, my father ordered crème brûlée. It came in a white soufflé dish, fluted around the sides. He cracked the golden crust of burnt sugar and handed me a spoon for a taste. Beneath the crunchy shards of caramel there was a luscious, creamy custard fragrant with vanilla, smooth and unctuous, the two elements in sharp contrast. I rather think I managed to eat almost the entire dish, leaving my father with only a few meagre spoonfuls.

With that first bite I was completely addicted. It would replace that other favorite dessert of my childhood, chocolate mousse, which has never quite regained its hold on my heart (and palate). I could never get enough. For years afterwards I would order crème brûlée every chance I got. I know what you're going to order, my mother would say knowingly as the waiter handed us dessert menus. It was a relentless, ongoing pursuit of perfection, a worldwide search for the holy grail. Sometimes they would come in shallow, oval dishes, which had a higher crust-to-custard ratio than the ones that came in deeper, round ramekins. Some restaurants would adorn the plates with a sprig of mint, a scattering of raspberries.

The perfect crème brûlée has an intense, not-too-sweet custard, creamy and flavored with vanilla (and sometimes Grand Marnier). I have had ones flavored with chocolate, coffee, mocha, various fruits and whatever else was trendy at the time, but it is my personal feeling that crème brûlée should only be flavored with vanilla (and maybe a little Grand Marnier if you're feeling naughty). Anything else is just missing the point. And then there is the crust. It has to be just thick enough to shatter satisfyingly as you smash your spoon into it, but not so thick that your spoon bounces off the impenetrable surface. On the other hand, a pale, anemic crust that barely covers the surface of the custard is pitiful.

I must have eaten hundreds of crème brûlées over the years. And then the unthinkable happened. I learned how to make my own. A friend gave me a mini propane torch for Christmas. Crème brûlée was no longer a rare treat. I could have it whenever I wanted. It was easy, cream, sugar, vanilla, and egg yolks blended together with a splash of Grand Marnier and baked in a bain-marie in the oven. Once the custards had set and cooled, a spoonful of sugar was sprinkled on top, and caramelized with the blue flame of my torch. And I could eat as much as I wanted. And the heartbreak hit me.

Something of the magic was gone.

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