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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Any Given Sunday (50 Shades of Caramel Custard)

This Sunday started like any other… with strong roots in Saturday night. The prior evening I had decided to make my triumphant return to the enigma that is Baltimore’s Gayborhood, Mt. Vernon.  While it was a tame night by most standards, the vigor with which I took to the dance floor and the hour I returned home, had an indelible effect on my energy level on Sunday morning.

I awoke early, determined to track down some of the elusive ingredients I lacked for an important cooking assignment this week, so I forced myself on my bike and headed toward the JFX. I think this initial burst of endorphins was the key to shaking off the exhaustion or at least it helped to sweat out my Saturday. 

I was at the market before 8, and by 8:15 I’d realized my pursuit of heads-on mackerel was going to fail (don’t ask) and decided to make my way home. Not without first buying the inaugural organic cauliflower of the season, something I most certainly didn’t need…it’s the little things.

Somehow I’d agreed to do some work at the office this Sunday - I can’t say I’m totally stable - so I decided to temper this situation with an equally misguided breakfast decision at Jimmy’s in Fells Point. A tomato-bacon omelet, home fries, and slab of scrapple later, I had officially heard the last of Saturday night and was beginning to feel the grumblings of the guilt associated with such caloric indiscretions – I’ll call it a draw…

Work was work, but I’d signed up for a Terrarium Making Class at Local Color Flowers at 11, so I had something to look forward to.

I met my friend Erica at the Charles Village studio that lived up to every charming and rustic expectation I had developed in my years of Facebook and Instagram stalking of LocoFlo, Ellen Frost and co. If you’ve never seen their work, look it up, they use only locally grown flowers and greens to create breathtaking arrangements and displays. They also happen to be an incredibly charming group with which to work and exercise an impeccable aesthetic.

The class was amazing, and definitely appealed to the 12 year old Discovery Channel Nerd that occasionally inhabits my body. We learned about the history of terrariums, got some design tips, and suggestions to care for our subject, succulents. My terrarium was decidedly restrained, with neurotic attention paid to color, contrast, and arrangement. Erica's on the other hand was an example of whimsy and color that had everyone talking. Both clearly made appearances on Instagram.

The entire experience was incredible, and while it didn’t turn out to be the “single and ready to mingle” format I delusionally thought it might, what better than to end up with another embellishment for the home and some new friends with minivans? My only thought is, why not add wine? then again, when am I NOT thinking about adding wine?

Post planting, reality set in and I still needed my mackerel. I texted the only person who I knew wouldn’t react badly to the following message  - “I desperately need whole mackerel! I can’t find them anywhere! I’m facing ruin… I think I need to go to the Asian Supermarket!” – Enter Sage (and yes these names are changed)

Sage, in addition to being “my kind of crazy”, an incredible friend, possessing a ridiculous appreciation and taste for food and wine, has also lived in Bangkok in a past life, often pines for it, so was clearly on board with my mission.

H - Mart is a short drive from Fells, but it’s a whole different world. If the Korean man playing an accordion in a mariachi outfit greeting customers at the front door doesn’t give you the picture, then you need to come see it yourself.

The produce section is a full contact sport where Grandmothers become gladiators and persimmons and star fruit fly with such speed I’ve considered wearing goggles. The meat section looks like an anatomy book, and the noodle selection is as widely varied as the packaging is colored. The whole thing is a cacophonous, overwhelming, and beautiful sensory experience. Needless to say, I found my fish. And Sage found about a million things…I won’t disclose details, a lady never tells….

We decided to celebrate our victory with Pho, as if there is any other way when you’ve braved H-Mart and come out alive. In a bowl so large I could have bathed myself, I found heaven. I don’t need to expound on my love for Pho, anyone who’s had it understands….

Nirvana achieved, we headed home, I had a mountain of prep work to do for the week ahead so I made the difficult decision to skip dinner at Gran’s….It’s that Catholic guilt, gets me every time.

A quick run around Fells with Lady Gaga in my ear, and the requisite stop at Chesapeake Wine Co under my belt, I headed home to get to work in the kitchen, a lovely Riesling from Pfalz in tow…

My main objective that evening, was to re-learn how to make custard.  I had what appeared to be an amazing recipe courtesy of a like minded colleague whose taste I trust implicitly, but I was nervous about the execution. 

This Salted Caramel & Spiced Rum custard was a conundrum, promising to be as be as difficult to make as it is simple to eat…There are temperatures to consider, actual measurements, and generally the whole process feels like a risky gamble. Mind you, I normally wouldn’t stress over dessert, but this was to be the final sweet note, the signature, if you will, I would put on my cooking assignment this coming week, and it HAD to be perfect. 

The present endeavor was to be the dress rehearsal, the dry run of all my dishes, the moment of truth…This kind of high stakes, hot pursuit, adrenaline pumping, make-you-sweat cooking is the perfect way to spend Any Given Sunday… there you go, there’s your sports reference...that felt forced.... Go Ravens!

I prepped many items that evening, but I will focus on 'the custard', because I know that's what everyone really wants to know about.

Now, I’m not a fan of using a hand mixer and this certainly led to some tense moments in texture, but what resulted was truly divine.  I’m not typically a dessert person, but this sweet, savory, creamy and  oh-so-rich pudding just may be the best thing I have ever made. Not that caramel, sea salt, and rum really need any embellishment, but bringing them all together in a heart-stoppingly decadent custard was a transcendent, dare I say orgasmic food experience.

Needless to say, it was a success, the climax of my weekend...I’m still glowing and was honestly tempted to call this post “50 Shades of Custard” – but frankly, it’s better than that!

So for your pleasure, the recipe:

Salted Caramel & Spiced Rum Custard

·    Ingredients
o   3 cups whole milk, divided
o   1/4 cup cornstarch
o   3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
o   3/4 cup water
o   5 large egg yolks
o   3 tablespoons unsalted butter (room temp)
o   2+ teaspoons dark rum
o   1 teaspoon kosher salt

o   Whisk 1/2 cup milk and cornstarch until combined. Set aside.
o   Heat the remaining 2 1/2 cups of milk until simmering. Remove from heat and set aside.
o   In a large bowl with a hand mixer, whisk egg yolks on medium speed for about 3 minutes – really, time yourself
o   To make the caramel, stir the brown sugar and water in medium saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. At that point, increase the heat, and cook without stirring until an instant read thermometer reads 210 – 220 degrees, it will darken and be careful not to scorch. Remove from heat.
o   With mixer at low speed (you may prefer to do this by hand), gradually whisk in the hot milk, then the cornstarch mixture into the eggs. Slowly whisk in the caramel. You will have a foamy mess of sweet hot milk at this point, don’t panic!
o   Return the mixture to the saucepan and whisk constantly over medium heat, until the mixture thickens (coats back of a spoon) and a thermometer registers 175 degrees, about 7 to 10 minutes. Honestly, at minute 7, I almost gave up, sure that this foamy mess was my fate and I had failed, but I pressed on, and all of a sudden it came together, so have patience, this will work!
o   Remove from heat; whisk in the butter, rum, and salt
o   Once whipped smooth and allowed to chill slightly, serve with whipped cream and sea salt. I made my own cream and used black sea salt…just because I’m fancy.

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