Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dessert in Transit: Vanilla Crème Brûlée for a Pair and Chocolate Tart for Many More

When I first showed up in London about a month and a half ago, I met another foreign transplant just as I was walking into a weekday lunchtime meditation class at the London Buddhist Centre. His name is José Kalab and he's a pastry chef from the Canary Islands (a little cluster of Spanish holdings off the coast of Africa with a population of approximately 2 million people, of whom I seem to know a disproportionately large number). José is friendly, earnest, and exuberant. He says that he now considers himself a Buddhist but he finds it hard to concentrate and stay in the moment during meditation. Interestingly, his recipes are the most centered and focused I've come across. They tell you what you need and what to do and they allow you to achieve what you've envisioned instantly, or at least within a couple of hours. I'm including two of José's recipes here. The first is for a crème brûlée, which he scribbled down on a scrap of paper in a matter of seconds, converting banquet sized measurements into their couple-sized counterparts. In keeping with José's experience cooking on cruise ships, the second recipe, for a simple chocolate tart, serves 36. This combination of small and big desserts seems pleasantly suited to my station in life at the moment. This week, I'm back in London, enjoying the last blissful moments of summer vacation (which I've grown accustomed to during my last several years as a teacher), wandering around during the days, making dinner and staying in with a friend in the evenings. But as of September 1st, I will embark on a new adventure, which will certainly involve less free time but many, many more travelers. A certain shyness or bewilderment is holding me back from announcing just yet what that adventure will be, but I will say that it's not inconceivable that I'll be making dessert for 36 along the way.

Whichever one of these desserts suits you and your number of guests at the moment, try to stay in the moment while making them and then take advantage of the time you saved with these efficient recipes by stepping out into the world before the clouds completely cover Greenwich Park or whatever pretty place may be a ten or fifteen minute walk away. The chocolate tart assumes that you're starting with ready-made (store bought or previously prepared) crusts (you'll need four of them). If you prefer to make your own tart shells, factor in some extra time and consult your favorite baking book (or use an old standby Julia Child recipe for a pâte brisée tart crust). Take your homemade crusts out ten minutes early for a perfect finish once you bake them with the filling. Use any good-quality dark chocolate, and you could purchase chocolate "buttons" (I have some from Hotel Chocolat here in the London, which are decent enough) to cut down on chopping time.

Vanilla Crème Brûlée for a Pair

250 ml cream
1 vanilla bean
4 egg yolks
50 grams (3 Tbsp) sugar
Extra sugar for the caramelized topping

Preheat oven to 140 degrees Celsius.

Gently cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and using the back of your knife scrape out the tiny black seeds. Add the seeds to the cream (you can also include the scraped-out bean for a more intense vanilla flavor, or else reserve it for another use), bring the mixture to a simmer, and then remove from heat. At the same time, whisk the yolks together with the sugar. Also, bring a kettle of water to a boil. Remove the empty vanilla bean, if using, from the cream. Mix half of the hot cream and vanilla mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly. Next, return the egg mixture to the pot with the rest of the cream and vanilla and whisk (but do not reheat it). Pour the custard mixture into two individual-sized ramekins.

Pour the boiling water into a roasting or baking pan until it comes one inch up the sides of the pan. Place the pan in the oven first and then carefully place the two ramekins in the water bath. Add more water to the pan as needed until the water comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (Be careful not to overfill the pan, which can be dangerous when you try to remove the crème brûlées.)  Cook for 45 minutes or until the custard no longer jiggles when you shake the ramekin. It's okay if the top of the custard starts to brown. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and the oven and allow them to cool for, depending on how much time you have, anywhere between half an hour and a couple of days (after half an hour, move them into the refrigerator).

Before eating, cover the top of each custard with a thin layer of sugar and then caramelize the sugar coating either by using a kitchen blowtorch for a few seconds or by placing the custards under a hot broiler (or "grill," in the UK) for a few minutes. Watch carefully and act quickly to avoid burning the sugar (it should not be black). Again, depending on how much time you have, allow the topping to set and cool for anywhere from a few minutes on the counter to a couple of days in the fridge. 

Chocolate Tart for Many More

18 whole eggs plus 18 egg yolks
300 grams sugar
780 grams butter, cut into small pieces
1,320 grams chocolate (in other words, just under 3 pounds), in small pieces
4 prepared basic pie crusts or shortcrust/pâte brisée tart shells

Preheat oven to 180 Celsius.

Whisk together the eggs, yolks, and sugar in a double boiler over moderate heat (the water should be gently boiling, and the metal bowl or pot should be positioned snugly above the water without touching it) until it is thick and frothy as in a sabayon or zabaglione sauce. Remove from heat. Add the butter and chocolate and stir until everything is melted and combined. Pour the mixture into the pie crusts or tart shells. Bake the tarts for ten minutes. Allow to cool for at least one hour, and chill for up to two days if you would like.

Serves approximately 36.

For those of you who are "working in or serving the chocolate industry professionally," the Fine Chocolate Industry Association is still accepting nominations of colleagues whom you feel are doing exceptional work. The nomination form will remain open through August 31.


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