Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Favorite food. crème caramel. (I've lost count; how many is this?).

I had my new place painted a color called crème caramel, and to my surprise (although I shouldn't have been surprised; those paint people know what they're talking about) stepping into the sunlight living room actually feels like falling into a plate of crème caramel. It is a delicious feeling. The walls are a creamy pale color, which gives a sensation of warmth and brightness and happiness. Like eating a dish of crème caramel. (I promise you, I did not choose my paint color based solely on the name).

Flan, crème caramel, caramel custard, crème renversée, whatever you want to call it, has long been one of my favorite foods, and I have ordered it almost every time I’ve seen it on the menu. It is different from crème brulée, where part of the satisfaction comes from that sharp contrast of crunchy burnt sugar on top and creamy custard below. Crème caramel is something else entirely. The pale custard is all smooth silkiness and flowing caramel syrup, that faintly burnt sweetness of the sauce against the crème.

I think flan is simpler than crème brulée; no need for flaming torches here. It is made with eggs and sugar and evaporated milk (Alice B. Toklas gives such a recipe; she expresses surprise that the French cook who gave her the recipe felt that American tinned evaporated milk was better than fresh milk, the only time anyone had recommended such a thing). The only slightly tricky part is making the caramel syrup; it has to turn deep golden brown but not burn. As caramel cools, it hardens; as the custard cooks it melts into a luscious sauce that runs down the sides and pools around the pudding as you reverse it onto a plate (it makes a pppffftt-thump sound as it plops out). You have to balance just the right amount of the ever-so-slightly-bitter syrup to flavor the crème without drowning it.

It is a childhood food, the way puddings and flans and soft things scooped tenderly with a spoon bring you back to being a child, no matter how old you are. Restaurants like to serve it on stark white plates adorned with things like mint leaves or candied orange zest, but nothing can disguise the homely way it slouches in front of you, as if it is burdened by its own weight. A friend used to make it for parties in a giant stainless steel mixing bowl, the caramel syrup lurking at the bottom like a dark secret. It is not a sophisticated sweet, nor should it be; it is a mother's kiss, a long embrace, a homecoming.

There have been crème caramels flavored with coconut, with orange, with chocolate, with coffee, just about anything you can imagine. (The original is still the best, perhaps with a hint of vanilla). Made from a mix, with evaporated milk, with plain milk, with cream; at fancy restaurants, roadside cafés, at the home of friends, in my own kitchen (furtively, late at night, sitting on the counter).

Somehow it is always good.

1 comment:

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

I've become a faithful reader, which maybe is not the best thing since I'm always trying to diet! And to think, I don't even really like creme caramel, but if it was sitting in front of me right this instant, I'd gobble it down in a heartbeat.