Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Days 18 and 19: The Pauper and the Prince, or, A Foul Wind.

On Thursday, our final day of class last week, we took our second quiz, this one involving the anatomies of both an egg and a wheat kernel, as well as some general questions about sugar chemistry and other matters.

We then proceeded directly across the border from serious quiz land into that sunny realm, that great beyond, that Eden which is custard. Most simply put, a custard is egg and sugar in a liquid medium. The liquid, usually milk or cream or a mixture of both, is heated with the sugar to boiling. It is then added very gingerly to beaten egg yolk, while whisking constantly. When fully combined, it is poured into ramekins or other molds, and baked in a soothing water bath. (A lengthy but hopefully enjoyable digression: I was immediately aggravated by this, because of something that happened long before class ever started. In several cookbooks on my shelves – including an encyclopedic, professional-level pastry reference book – all the recipes for custard of any kind begin by boiling the milk alone, and thoroughly beating the egg yolks with the sugar. This reversal of ingredients, adding sugar to the yolks instead of to the milk, seems rather benign, doesn’t it? Allow me to explain why “benign” is not the word you’re looking for. As those who know me would willingly testify, I am not a small person, nor am I a weak one. However, whisking egg yolks and sugar together, “until light and fluffy, with a canary yellow color,” reduces my strength to that of an anemic lamb, and quickly. The arm is fatigued by literally the tenth whisk-stroke, and it takes approximately three thousand five hundred whisk-strokes to bring the mixture to the consistency described. Please, by all means, say I’m exaggerating; say, “No, Julian, it really cannot be that bad.” And then go, please, go, and whisk eight egg yolks together with a cup of sugar, until the texture is as I quoted above, then gradually whisk in a quart of boiling milk. Seriously, do it. The whole project will cost you four bucks, tops. Did you try it? It’s unbelievable, isn’t it!? Now that you’ve experienced this ridiculousness, imagine finding out that it would have made no difference to the product in any way, if you had simply beaten the egg yolks alone, and dissolved the sugar in the milk. Seriously. Cookbook authors: Fix this. It’s ridiculous.

But I digress.) When the custard is done baking, one of several things can happen. For instance: if you prepared the ramekin by adding a small amount of caramel to it before adding the custard and baking, you could easily have made crème caramel. Simply chill it after baking, and then invert it onto a plate. Just run a paring knife around edges and be patient. Voilà, your waiter might say. These are the projects we unmolded and sampled today. They’re remarkably good, and not overly sweet.

Another lodging for custard is humble, homely bread pudding. Even Tiny Tim got to enjoy this ageless classic, which is simply custard mixed with cubes of bread and baked in a dish. It can be quite fine, though, if it’s made with a smooth, vanilla-infused custard, and bread of bakery-quality. Also, it helps when you take a bit of candied ginger and some golden raisins, pour rum over them, and flambé them, and then add them into the mix, as my partner and I did on Day 18, last Thursday. It was the one project we were able to take home at the end of the week, and it tastes even better than it sounds. With a steaming cup of dark coffee next to a small plate of this hot, simple, peasant dish, I did manage to have one of the loveliest Sunday mornings on record.

On a much higher hill in the kingdom sits the indomitable Crème Brûlée. I realize that I am developing a reputation for having too many favorite things, but truly, this is the one. Crème Brûlée is my perfect dessert. Its brittle, almost imperceptibly bitter crust, combines in sweet, tiny shards with the supple, velvet custard beneath it. I am certainly not alone in my love of Crème Brûlée; it shows up on dessert menus everywhere. This massive demand has led to a lot of people making it who can’t do it too well. Finding a perfectly harmonious one can be somewhat difficult, depending on your access to good restaurants, or the right kind of friends. But the quest is worth it, for when you find a good one, it is a religious experience. The one my partner and I created Thursday, the crown jewel of our reign together, was still too warm to finish at the end of class. We put it in the freezer for the weekend, and had something to look forward to for Monday, which was today. When we opened the freezer, our custards were there, still loosely covered with parchment paper. The new thing in the freezer, however, was an aroma such as you might expect in the processing area of a sneaker-recycling factory. I had been looking forward to it – my first professional-level Crème Brûlée. I guess I’ll just have to wait. I think mine are pretty good anyway.

We now seem to have one wheel off the rails. As of this evening, we’ve managed to finish two out of three projects from last Thursday’s class. We began two more as well, which we’ll hopefully finish tomorrow. These projects are also high on the list of Things People Like, but I’ll wait to see how they come out before I describe them to you. I’ll have a more complete perspective.

Besides, I can’t go giving everything away.

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