NOT all food memories are as transporting as the kind Ego, the villain food critic, encountered at his first taste of Remy the rat’s ratatouille. Some are just so vague and distant you search hard for that first encounter only to find nothing, just the hopelessness of a time passed and a record all but lost at sea.
Crème brûlée is one such memory.
For a long time now, this simple, elegant custard dessert has held a special place in my heart. It’s one of several I would name if you were to ask me what my favorite desserts are.
Did I first have it in Paris, at Le Marais, in the fall of 1994 during my very first trip to France, or was it at this chic French restaurant at the Hyatt called Hugo’s? No, maybe it wasn’t Le Marais, but Le Quartier Latin, I don’t remember. Then, the memory would get a little messy — could it be that it wasn’t even crème brûlée I had at that bistro, but Tarte Tatin? All I remembered clearly of that soirée was the fromage du chevre, the weird bug-like back note and plastic taste of goat’s cheese from that deadly morsel I had picked from the plate of my dining companion, Richard, a long-ago friend with whom I’ve lost touch.
Such annoying quandaries of a foggy brain could well have been avoided if I had kept a journal. It’s a habit I still don’t keep, alas, which is not to say that my memory is poor or sluggish.
Here, I’m going to brag a little about how distinctly I remember a not-so-wonderful crème brûlée I had about a decade ago, while I was still living out east in Marine Parade. I’m not sure if the French restaurant at Siglap is still there — let’s not name it out of kindness and charity — but that’s the kind of crème brûlée that does disservice to its comrades.
It was ice cold, stiff like konnyaku, and baked in a soufflé ramekin, so that the custard was tallish rather than shallow and luxurious, more of a pot de crème than a crème brûlée, if you were to ask me. Naturally, no wonderfully crisp caramel top could possibly have redeemed it, not that the caramel impressed me either.
It inspired such a sheepish moment at the table where I had to summon the wait person, who in turn had to summon the chef. “Is there a reason why this is so cold?” I enquired. “I’m not sure why it’s not soft like I imagine it should be.”
The sweet, cherubic-faced chef explained his rendition of this great dessert, his Crème Konnyaku Fantastique. What could I say except to feign a stupid kind of ignorance, and fake a resentful enjoyment after a lovely confit of duck leg.
Fast forward many years to 2018, I decided I would make my own Crème Brûlée Fantastique. After all, I had just sent myself to baking school the year before, shouldn’t I be making the most of my newfound skills? The beauty of making anything on your own is you could go after all the wonderful things you’re after. For me, Fantastique was lisse et doux, smooth and soft, with a brûlée, burnt top that was sexy, sheet-thin, and elegant.
As with all first attempts, we either run into Lady Luck and loud jackpot ka-chings, or nasty rude pops of burst balloons. Mine was not luck, not jackpot, not even balloon, but haebi hiam.
You know, haebi hiam? It’s the stuff I love on my plain white porridge over a Saturday lunch at home — minced dried shrimps fried into a wild and dizzy tumble of spicy, granular bits, it’s the kind of relish that takes you back home, back to Mom, back to Grandma, back to the roots.
That was exactly how my first crème brûlée looked like, such an impressive charred haebi hiam top:
Well, blame it on the damp, chunky bits of demerara sugar. Blame it too on the unskilled hand, which coaxed an angry, wild dragon out of a propane flame, so that Fantastique got into Horrible territory in the blink of an eye.
I looked at my crème brûlée notes, and just discovered, to my horror, that I had baked my poor babies at 175ºC in my debut attempt. I’m sad to report I got that advice from Julia Child in her Julia and Jacques cookbook, I really like to think the 350ºF was a typo!
Something was seriously wrong, but thankfully, Anthony Bourdain came to my rescue, he showed me the light: 150ºC. And he pointed out to me, too, that magic moment of courage, one he calls “set but still jiggly” — the point of doneness that has freaked me out for a long time with my custards, that aspirational sweet spot which has a similar equivalent too in fish, meat, in everything.
After many iterations and brave dives, I’ve found my jiggly center and the sexy, lace-like, sheet-thin burnt top. What’s the secret? You’ve got to have faith, you’ve got to learn how to let go, you’ve got to go with your intuition.
Along the way, I’ve also discovered two other things neither Child nor Bourdain got to show me: first, the skill of taming the dragon, and second, the magic touch of sprinkling and managing your sugar. And you’re right, no demerara, please!