I hit a new cooking low on Saturday. For the first time ever, I actually spat out a bite of something I’d made. It was not too spicy or too hot, but it was completely gross. I made the world’s worst crème brûlée. Maybe you’re thinking, how bad could it have been—it’s heavy cream, vanilla, sugar, and eggs! Let me tell you exactly how bad it was. The top layer was a rubbery, waxy skin that tasted like the residue left in the pan after you cook scrambled eggs. Beneath that treat was a loose, wet blob studded with hard bits (of what, I don’t know). The taste was the least revolting thing about it, but even that was off the mark—egg all but erased the vanilla and cream. Oh, and it was ugly, too: the top was yellow mottled with pockmarks and blisters and the bottom was damp, lumpy cottage cheese. On my personal cooking success spectrum, this earns a spot way down low, just a hair above that halibut that ruined me for all halibut forever.
I was making the crème brûlées for a cookbook club dinner party my friend Jennifer was hosting. Like the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook party, we were cooking exclusively from one book: Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. It was my job to do the dessert because Jennifer and our friend Katie had recently given me everything I needed to make crème brûlée. I was really excited to use my new ramekins, vanilla paste, and of course, blow torch. That said, I have had issues with custard in the past, so I was a little nervous. My confidence was buoyed by the fact that this was an Ina recipe (as you know, I trust Ina). I also skimmed the unanimously stellar reviews on the Food Network website and convinced myself that this was going to be a cinch. I even watched the online video clip of Ina making the crèmes. It sure did look simple.
In retrospect and after consulting with Jennifer, I’ve determined that I messed up on the very first step. Ina says to mix the eggs and the sugar until just combined. In her video, she says not to overdo it. I dumped the yolks and sugar into my brand new stand mixer and let that paddle attachment twirl for just a little bit. I was really concerned about overdoing it. As if this post isn’t confessional enough, I will also admit to you that I still think my mixer is magic and I don’t really know how to use it. I’ve had it for barely a month and I remain in awe. I believe that it must be doing everything I used to do with my handheld beaters way faster and way better. So when Ina said not to overdo it, I barely did it at all because I was worried my fancy machine would go too far too fast. Clearly, that’s not true, as my anemic efforts to mix the eggs into the sugar failed to combine the two sufficiently, creating a sludge with some helpless unincorporated egg solids. I would have done a better job with a spatula. Of course, I didn’t know the stuff wasn’t combined until after I’d added the scalded milk (which I probably added too fast). When I poured the custard from the mixing bowl, I noticed a menacing, lumpy layer of bright orange yolk coating the bottom. Cooked egg. Blech. Jennifer and I have a theory that the vulnerable egg solids that weren’t combined with sugar were victims of the hot milk.
Things got even weirder in the oven. (I’m skipping the part where I spilled a bunch of the custard when trying to pour it from the bowl into the ramekins. Some words were said.) When I peeked into the oven to see how my troubled custards were doing, I was alarmed to find them bubbling. I knew that wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what to do about it.* I just stood there, worried. Here’s where I started to short out. I knew the crèmes were ruined. I began to sputter in the kitchen, fumbling with a jar I needed for another recipe, growling and murmuring. I very dramatically requested Ed’s assistance opening the jar. He very politely requested that I calm down. Anyone who’s ever been on the brink of a total meltdown knows that calming down is the exact opposite of what’s about to happen. The only words I could muster were: “I’m just. so. frustrated.” Before I knew it, my eyes were full and my cheeks were hot. After a shudder or two, I let myself be hugged and took a deep breath. I rested on the couch and tweeted that crème brûlée is hard. I started to feel better and declared that we’d just throw away the failures and pick up some ice cream instead.
(*Later, while trying not to botch Ina’s gougères, I realized that my oven was running really hot and that’s probably why my custards were bubbling out of control.)
Shortly before we were scheduled to leave, I decided to have a little taste of the desserts. Maybe they weren’t that bad, after all. That’s when I spit my spoonful into the sink. That’s also when I got a sense of humor about the whole situation. It’s one thing to dry out some cake or burn a chicken breast, but this was a whole new level of fail. Jennifer happened to call me a moment later and upon hearing how disgusting the desserts were, suggested that we make mousse at her place instead. She still wanted me to bring some sad-filled ramekins so we could analyze them. After champagne cocktails, wine, and some boozy Grand Marnier chocolate mousse, we pulled out two crème specimens. Jennifer and our friend Amanda tried to tell me the custard tasted okay. I know it was the Grand Marnier talking. Trust me, these were terrible.