31 October 2012

On Book Covers and Crème Brûlée

They always say "don't judge a book by its cover." As a person who loves books and anything related, I've often wondered about this. I judge books by their covers all the time, especially since I know editors pick book covers in order to say something about the book or appeal to a certain type of reader. When you know the codes, it can become pretty easy to tell if it will be to your taste or not.

I've had a version of this conversation with a caviste (wine seller) in my neighborhood. He assured me that if you know nothing about wine - or at least about any of the wines you have in front of you - choosing by the label is not a bad idea. The domain who makes the wine also chooses the label and it tells you something about their taste. For example, if they make their labels classic, he says, they probably make their wines that way too.

Not only do we judge by covers but we get attached to the outer appearance as well. On, Shelfari, a book website where people can create their own personal shelves, there are often twenty or so cover-options for a single book and you can even upload your own. I mean if you've read the book, you know what's inside. Why should the cover art matter? But it does. I recently uploaded MY cover of the edition of Le temps retrouvé. Because, yes, after starting in a moment of craziness and talking your ears off about it again and again and again, three years later, I've FINALLY finished Marcel Proust's many-volume novel. (I'm not here to go on about it, but let me just say that if I never used French again it would have been worth learning the entire language just to read Proust in the original text. Ok, melodramatic moment over.)

So why do we do it? Why do we judge "covers"? I think, because it saves time and because it's efficient. Maybe because we're often right. We know what certain things look like. We recognize them. Or we extrapolate based on given knowledge and known codes. Mind you, judging by the cover becomes MUCH less reliable when we're outside of our culture. Just go into a bookstore in another country if you don't believe me. In France, every book looks like a dense philosophical essay to me. In England, the colorful covers look like cheap chick lit.

That said, I think we have the expression because we need to be reminded that judging a book by its cover doesn't always work. It has to be a working hypothesis at best. Because life will surprise you. Sometimes things look simple from the outside and when you get closer you find them to be subtle and infinitely complex. Recipes with few ingredients are like that: Poor Man's Soup, Pesto, Shortbread, even Cucumber Salad. Culinary magic.

But the opposite is also true. Sometimes things that look complex from the outside, turn out to be straightforward and simple once you get to know them better. Crème brûlée falls into that category. It intimidated me so much that, even though I got a crème brûlée torch for my last birthday, it took me a whole year to try it out. I got a taste of the bain marie technique when I made Pot de Crème and that's really the only tricky part. Otherwise this recipe is a piece of cake - or, shall we say, a spoonful of crème brûlée?

(serves 4 or 6, depending on the size of your ramekins)

6 egg yolks
80g sugar (about 1/2 cup)
375ml (about 1 1/2 cups) heavy cream
1 vanilla pod
1 Tbsp castor sugar per ramekin

Preheat the oven to 250ºF (130ºC).
Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy.
Pour the heavy cream into a saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds out into the cream - you can throw the bean in as well - and bring to a boil.
Strain over the egg/sugar mixture. Mix well and pour into ramekins.
Place the ramekins in a large baking pan and pour boiling water into the baking pan until it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Cook for about 30 minutes until just set. Remove from the oven and take ramekins out of boiling water. Let cool, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours - overnight is best for the perfect texture.
Right before serving, sprinkle 1 Tbsp of castor sugar over the top of the custard and fire with a crème brûlée torch until sugar is evenly caramelized. If you don't have a torch, you can put your ramekins under the grill setting in the oven for a couple minutes. Watch carefully so they don't burn.
Serve immediately for the perfect warm crunchy topping with cool, creamy custard,

It's not nearly as hard as it may sound. Give it a try and enjoy one of life's surprises!