Monday, January 11, 2010

Once Upon a Time

There was a weekend long ago (well, a few days ago) that was particularly depressing to my palate. Things were spiraling down, getting worse and worse as the weekend progressed. Just when I thought I was doomed to spend eternity in the depths of culinary-deprived hell, hunched in the corner eating cardboard slathered in fried oil and dipped in bright red processed ketchup, Sunday evening’s meal came along, enlivening my taste buds and reinvigorating my will to live…er, eat.

It all started Friday afternoon. It was a rainy, dark, dreary day, the kind that sends a shudder down the spines of even the bravest Seattlites. I spent the gloomy day dreaming of soups, stews, and other hearty, stick-to-your-bones dinners. Racing home in the rain, spices and herbs danced in my head. Upon my arrival home, however, the unthinkable happened…our dinner plans fell through! I tried to convince Evan to go out, but in the endless rain, my efforts were futile. The cupboards were bare. With no other choice, we gave in to a meal that would kick off the blandest of all weekend eatery: frozen fish sticks and cheetos.

Saturday I awoke to sunny skies and the possibilities of a new, delicious day. Unfortunately, it was like I was stuck in Groundhog’s Day, unable to break the awful curse of the cardboard diet. With dinner plans falling through yet again, we resigned ourselves to a fate even more awful than frozen fish sticks… Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and fries… what had life come to? Would my taste buds ever again bring my lips to a pucker upon greeting sour and bitter flavors? Would I sing at the contrast of sweet and salty on my tongue? Would I ever again be swept up by the richness of umami in my mouth!?

As Sunday rolled around, I lingered sluggishly in bed, unable to face another flavorless day. And just then, when I thought that all hope was lost, when I was about to give in and forever succumb to lifelong dread, I remembered: it was the day of our first ever book club meeting! And I was preparing dinner! Just the motivation I needed to pull myself together and reignite my withering taste buds. The menu: Brown Butter and Beer Butternut squash soup with ricotta and parmesan cheese; caramelized fig and pecan salad with gorgonzola and shallot vinaigrette; and buttery buttermilk biscuits sprinkled with flavored sea salt made by Evan’s sister Teresa. And just in case the velvety soup, fluffy biscuits, and sweet savory salad weren’t enough to save me from a life of tasteless misery, the gals in shining armor came to the rescue with wine, V’s nutty asparagus and prosciutto appetizer, and the biggest hero of all, Chelsea’s dessert.

Artfully arranged on my bright, colorful dessert plates, Chelsea’s smooth caramel flan served with slices of juicy mango was exactly what I needed to shake away my weekend doldrums. With one bite, I was whisked away on a culinary adventure to an exotic land. A creamy custard dripping with caramel, tasting of Crème brûlée, paired with fresh, sweet mango…I was alive once more! The weekend, at last, was saved. As book club began, full of the promise of many flavorful dinners and lively discussions, I licked my plate clean, and quietly rejoiced in the awaking of my slumbering palate.

Chelsea's Classic Creme Caramel
Serves 4

1/2 cup plus 2 T. sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/4 cups half and half
4 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
1/2 t. vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Have four 6-oz ramekins or custard cups ready and a 10-inch square baking pan. Put kettle of water to boil for the water bath.

Heat 1/2 cup sugar and the water in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil, washing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush if you see any sugar crystals. Boil, without stirring, swirling the pan toward the end to even out the color, until caramel is a dark amber color. Immediately pour caramel into the ramekins, tiling to coat the bottom and sides evenly. Let cool and harden at room temperature.

In the meantime, heat the half and half in a medium saucepan over medium heat until hot. Whisk together the egg yolks, the remaining 2 T. sugar, and the salt in a medium bowl. Slowly pour in the half and half into the bowl, whisking constantly. Pour the custard through a fine strainer set over a medium glass measure or bowl. Whisk in the vanilla.

Divide custard evenly among the ramekins. Place the ramekins in the baking pan, place it in the oven, and carefully pour enough boiling water into the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until custard is set around the edges but still slightly jiggly in center. Don’t overbake! The custards will settle further as they cool.

With tong, carefully transfer the ramekins to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate, tightly covered, for at least 3 hours, until thoroughly chilled and set, or up to 1 day. To serve, run a table knife around the edges of the ramekins and invert onto serving plates.
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