I have recently acquired a crème brûlée torch.
I like crème brûlée; it’s one of my favourite desserts. But the few times that we—that’s me and the wife—tried to make it at home, it did not set properly.
I also like caramel custard (or crème caramel), but I cannot get this right either. It just falls flat. They say it gets better with practice but in our case it hasn’t. There’s always something missing.
The recipes were from my wife’s vast collection of cookbooks. It’s an obsession with her: There are recipe books, encyclopaedias and anthologies on food writing. She also collects clippings from newspapers and magazines, and files them subject-wise in many folders (Christmas, Desserts, Curries, etc.). And then there are handwritten family recipes, a culinary inheritance. Ask her for a recipe and she will tell you exactly where to find it.
She experiments with recipes: If one doesn’t work, she tries out another from a different book. And when we all say “Wow!” she sticks to that version. Over time she has perfected quite a few desserts—orange cake, lemon cheesecake and brownies—which are now family favourites.
Whenever she bakes something, she prefers it if I am around—but not because she wants my opinion. I am not a foodie (give me eggs cooked any which way). She wants me around because I am the techie in the house. My job is to go online and find answers to her queries: What’s the temperature for a moderately hot oven? How much is a stick of butter in grams? What is a substitute for evaporated milk?
Baking over, she does the post-mortem: Why didn’t the gelatine set, or the soufflé rise? I am sure her cookbooks and clippings have the answers but she finds it simpler to do a Net search.
She has her favourite food blogs and websites (Epicurious, Allrecipes, 101 Cookbooks, etc.), and says she finds the comments and reviews useful when she is trying out a new recipe. Sometime back she wanted to recreate the Austrian Lemon Tart she had tasted in the US. She found a few recipes on the Net, but the three versions she tried out have all tasted different. They were not the same as the original. The Norwegian Cookies that she made from Allrecipes.com, however, were so good that some friends even asked for the recipe, and I am tempted to add the app to my iPhone.
Remote cooking: Crème brûlée at just a click of the mouse.
The other advantage of going online vis-à-vis opening a book is that if you don’t get it right you can always post a question to the experts (we suspect the soufflé didn’t rise because the egg whites weren’t whisked properly). If still in doubt she looks for a demo on YouTube. There aren’t as many recipe demos as you would expect to find, but I am happy that I stumbled upon a video in which a master chef from the French Culinary Institute takes you through the entire process of making crème brûlée (“remove all air bubbles from the whisked custard”). He does it step by step, and makes it sound quite simple. That’s when I decided to get the blowtorch.
I haven’t attempted the crème brûlée since I acquired the gizmo, but purely for fun we sprinkled some sugar on a slice of lemon tart, burnt it golden brown with the torch, and I am happy to report that my new gadget works.
We also showed the 8-minute video to our cook. She obviously liked the idea of watching a demo because on another occasion when my wife was reading out to her a recipe for a chicken dish, she asked, “Can’t you show it to me on the computer?”
Which makes me wonder, is this the future of the cookbook?
The website Cookstr.com has recipes of star chefs and cookbook authors. The Epicurious site has all the recipes from Gourmet, the popular food magazine that Condé Nast was forced to shut down because of falling ad revenues and competition from the Internet. So, why would you buy a cookbook when you can get a recipe free on the Net?
My wife says she still would; our son has the recipe apps on his iPhone.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org