I have admitted here before that I don’t really have a sweet tooth. As the years pass, the process of tasting and tasting and tasting my desserts as I make them every day has put me in a state of sugar overload. So not only do I not have a sweet tooth, I have somewhat of a repulsion to sweet.
This overexposure, I believe, keeps me honest. It keeps my desserts balanced in a way that the sweet is tolerable to me. Not only that, but my distaste for just-plain-sweet helps remind me that my job is to create the culmination to your experience in a restaurant, which just happens to be the time you are most welcome to sweet flavors, rather than to just put something sweet on a plate.
Around 4 in the afternoon, when I hit my 8 hour mark in the kitchen, my fingers start to creep into the cooks prep work, snagging a piece of spice coated cauliflower waiting to be roasted, or a spoon of cooked chard waiting to become a gratin. And the cooks laugh as I mumble the words, “mmmmm, not sweet.”
By that time in the day, the sweet part of my palate has been “rode hard and put away wet” so to speak.
But in no way should anyone ever think I don’t love dessert. I do. In particular, I love the act of finalizing a meal. I love extending a social situation. Sitting around a table with friends old and new, leaning back in my chair, hunger satiated, but desiring to prolong the time, continue the conversations and laughter. The time is coming to a close, but not until you have nibbled a little more, one last time, as you bring your conversations to their end. Or if it’s just two of us, splitting a dessert, leaning in closer, talking about the flavors, creating a shared experience.
For me, this can happen with a few pieces of cheese, adorned with fruits, nuts, and honey, or a glass of sherry. A satsuma, perfect in season, or slices of peach dipped in fresh yogurt. At a friends house, I swooned over ripe strawberries dipped in lime curd. One of my favorite recent experiences was a plate of bitter, nearly burnt almonds, and shards of dark, dark, dark chocolate. At home a small square of nice chocolate is often the end of my dinner, as short and sweet as saying, “the end” after telling a story. And in restaurants that hire pastry talent, I love seeing and appreciating another pastry chefs expression.
As for the desserts I make? Enjoyment is somewhat lost in analysis. It’s near impossible for me to eat them without completely dissecting them, looking for flaws to perfect. And trust me, there are always things to improve.
But of the desserts I just flat out don’t like? Those I would never order at a restaurant? There is really just one.
I really don’t like eating creme brulee. It’s so rich. And creamy, and custardy. And that shattering layer of caramelized sugar? Meh.
I get why people like it. It’s rich, and creamy, and custardy, and there is this thin layer of shattering caramelized sugar on top. It’s just not my thing.
It doesn’t help that every restaurant without a pastry chef has their nubile pantry cook, or worse, dishwasher throw creme brulees together. So the percentage of mediocre brulee’s is out there, or worse, trio’s of mediocre brulees!
So when I make creme brulee for my menu, It’s not that I struggle, it’s just that it doesn’t mean anything to me. I can’t internalize it, relish the simplicity of the contrasting textures. Aside from the sand-castle-smashing little kid in me that loves cracking the sugary top, I don’t feel any emotion when I imagine sitting with a creme brulee in front of me.
I make it the way I think is best. The custard set a hint firmer, certainly not loose in the center at all. The base is all cream, baked in shallow dishes for maximum surface area, and infused with an interesting flavor, kaffir-lime leaf and lemongrass under-toned with chamomile at the moment. I pull back on the sugar quite a bit, so the custard is never too sweet. On top I melt the first layer of sugar with the torch, leaving it colorless and clear. A second layer of sugar is bruleed, caramelizing the sugar according to the flavor of the custard. A light amber for delicate aromatic brulees like the kaffir-lemongrass, dark, bitter notes for flavors like butterscotch, or vanilla.
I demand that the cooks let it sit for a full 2 minutes after torching the top before the servers are even aware it is ready. If the sugar is at all warm and flexible, it won’t shatter when you tap it with a spoon. And in a dessert with only 2 textural elements, this cracking of the sugary top is the only interactive part the dessert plays wiht the diner. If it is not perfect, that’s 33 percent of the experience botched.
But honestly, it’s kind of a guess. I do my best, but the dessert doesn’t hold a special place in my heart. After making it the way I see fit, I still have no desire to eat it. Ever.
So I ask of you out there, creme brulee fanatics, those that hold this dessert above all. What are your preferences? What does this dessert mean to you? What constituted the best and worst creme brulee you have ever tasted?