I like to cook. It gives me time to think, to consider and muse about ordinary, everyday things, like making a dessert.
When you have special guests what could be a better dessert than the classic Crème Caramel? Dinner guests always appreciate this one. Not just because it is delicious, gold and gleaming and looks fabulous when turned onto a fine china plate, but the making process is a treat.
The classic recipe for a Crème Caramel requires very ordinary and ready-to-hand ingredients—eggs, cream, milk and sugar. But great care must be taken lest the caramel burns, or the Crème curdles. It is a slow, though simple process.
The most dramatic part of making this dessert is making the caramel.
In my heavy German pan I carefully heat sugar and a little water. As I watch, the sugar crystals gradually melt into a clear liquid. I watch carefully. It is easy to miss the critical moment when without warning the liquid in the pan starts to turn golden and at this point, before it burns, it must be poured immediately into the glass dish to set into rock-hard toffee. I quickly swirl the dish to coat the bottom and sides and the sugar syrup begins to set at once. I put this aside.
It is time to make the Crème.
I whisk eggs and sugar together then put some milk and cream to gently warm. And here’s where the ‘Something Special’ is added—pure vanilla. Vanilla essence comes in neat little bottles or jars and is cheap and easy to use, but for the best, the most fragrant, delicate and rich flavour I need a real vanilla pod.
The best vanilla pods look like slender licorice sticks and come from a far-off land. They are bought sealed in a glass vial and can cost $7. Each! When split and gently heated in the milk and cream an unremarkable-looking seedpod from a tropical plant yields the most subtle and wondrous aroma and flavour. A profligate cook might toss the bean out after using, but if rinsed quickly under water and stored in a jar of sugar it can be saved, to be used again and again. The bonus is a jar of vanilla sugar!
The vanilla-infused cream is poured into the eggs and stirred over gentle heat until the mixture thickens a little. Then it’s poured into the caramel-lined dish and baked in a slow oven until set. The fragrance fills the kitchen.
So where’s this going, you say?
It’s all about transformation—ordinary, everyday ingredients being transformed by a precious essence into something special. And it’s also about giving, and about love.
Sometimes a guest is worthy of such a gift.
It’s a little bit like the story of Mary in the Gospels, the Mary who used exorbitantly expensive perfume to wash Jesus’ feet before drying them with her hair. This was personal. She didn’t use some scrap of rag to wipe the oil from his feet. She used the softest material she had to wipe off the precious perfume. Her hair, her ‘crowning glory’.
Letting down her hair was of itself a huge sacrifice—women simply didn’t do that in those days, certainly not in public, in front of men—but using it to wipe Jesus’ feet meant that she might preserve the fragrant oil in her hair, nourishing and conditioning it. Not wasting it.
Crème Caramel and precious nard are nothing alike, nothing at all, but there’s a common idea here.
Ordinary baked caramel custard will do, taste nice enough and it’s cheap. But why make do with the ordinary, when the addition of something precious, a ‘special essence’ can transform it into something wonderful? And once you have tasted the wonderful, the ordinary tastes, well ... ordinary.
Sheelagh Wegman, BA, IPEd Accredited Editor is a freelance writer and editor. She enjoys reading, music, sings in the choir of St David’s Cathedral in Hobart and lives in the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington.
Sheelagh Wegman’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/sheelagh-wegman.html