Cream Dreams

I’ve long carried a torch for crème brûlée. What creamy desserts should I make next?

A creamy dessert.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

With the recent trendiness of food through social media and “foodies,” how can we return to the essence of food and eating? Are there ways to maximize the relationship between the internet and food?

When I was about 10, one of my favorite books was The 35th of May, a tale of a young boy’s adventures with his uncle, a flamboyant bachelor, who takes him on a fantastical journey to the South Seas, riding on a roller skates–wearing horse, no less. On their way, they travel through the “Schlaraffenland”—a paradise for gluttons and sloths where food is everywhere, free, and abundant. They meet the mayor, an obese teenager who has become too lazy to even chew real food and presents them with the perfect solution: watching large slide projections of delicious foodstuffs while popping vitamin pills. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Only that the book was written in 1931, by German humorist Erich Kästner.

I often say that America is a place where everything happens—at the same time. On one hand, we have 24-hour access to an excess of food-related visual stimuli for which the term food porn is all too fitting: The more of it you consume, the less you might do the actual deed (cooking or having intercourse) as you get used to consuming a fantasy version of it (be it food or sex) that is less messy and demands nothing of you. Cooking shows, originally meant to inspire viewers to cook, ended up fostering what I like to call vicarious cooking (“culinary onanism” is arguably more accurate but less quotable). Viewers may feel like they really want to “make this” (a line often expressed in the comment sections below online cooking videos), but then, there is always another video to watch and a cheap, home-delivered dinner is only a few taps on a smartphone away.

I don’t mean to imply that there is no home cooking going on, but the question is, what kind of home cooking. I always take notice of what people put into their shopping carts in grocery stores, and I see an abundance of pre-washed lettuces, precut vegetables, bottled salad dressings, ready-made hummus, jarred pasta sauces, packaged chicken stock, and frozen ravioli. It appears that home cooking no longer equals homemade food. Convenience has won the game.

On the other hand, there is the fairly new, fast-spreading phenomenon of the “foodie,” although I have seen the word applied to both avid restaurantgoers as well as hobby cooks—somethings we ought to distinguish, the former being a consumer and the latter a practitioner. This is where social media has stepped in, luring ambitious foodies into turning their hobby into a profitable business (having a large number of “followers” can lead to deals with companies as long as you’re willing to sneak some very strategic product placement into your feed). This is a problem because it turns yet again something that ought to be a natural part of life into a spectacle and a masquerade.

There are side effects: Many of these new-fangled food authorities and internet sensations are taking a big chunk of the pleasure of cooking out for the rest of us by pre-empting our own path of discovery and experimentation in the kitchen with their well-meaning micro-instructions. I have had, in the past month, several polite disagreements with fellow cookbook authors who insist that following their recipes meticulously is not only mandatory and a guarantee for success (it is not and will never be) but deeply satisfying to their readers. According to this logic, creativity is reserved for those with an elevated platform, whereas the rest of us ought to be content to just follow their lead.

I beg to differ: The thrill of cooking comes not from following instructions but from learning to make informed decisions that eventually lead to freedom and independence in the kitchen, possibly spilling into other parts of our lives. There are countless ways of doing something well. Just google a recipe for any one dish: You will find a multitude of different versions, each of them insisting that they got it right. Which brings me to the advantage the internet has brought to our fingertips: the accessibility of information and data, the availability of virtually every product via home delivery (convenient but putting local stores out of business), a new level of interconnectivity that enables us to make new acquaintances across the globe with whom we share common interest.

Here’s my advice on how to get the best out of it:

Don’t go down the rabbit hole (or kitchen drain) by looking at recipes, cooking videos, and Instagram feeds. Find your inspiration in the real world, at a market or grocery store. Pick up whatever catches your eye, especially if it’s something you have never had (in my case, it has at some point or other been yucca, bitter melon, Chinese broccoli, glass noodles, pigeon peas, plantains, palm oil, pozole) and then do some research on how to cook it, be it in an actual cookbook or online, and maybe even ask for advice on an online forum. In other words, use the internet in a more focused, concrete way that anchors you in reality and the present. But, most of all, make an effort to prepare more home-cooked meals and share them with friends and family. No cellphones allowed at the table, especially not for showing pictures of food.

I’m about to move out of my apartment and into a converted delivery van for ski season: This means no oven, no freezer, limited refrigerated storage, and a limited budget. I’m not a confident cook, and while I eat meat, I lived with a militant vegan for seven years and have no idea how to cook it aside from baking chicken breasts and hoping for the best. What do I make for dinner when all I have is a two-burner stove and a chest cooler? I’m assuming black bean tacos with jarred salsa will get old at some point.

Congratulations to your successful escape. Living with a militant roommate, no matter what she or he is militant about would make me convert even a baby stroller into a mobile home: anything just to get away. It’s all a smooth downhill slide from here on for you—on the slopes, that is, and it should be hot fun and a half. But “hoping for the best” won’t get you far, and jarred salsa is not “getting old,” it’s DOA.

Ironically, your best friends for this season would even find your roommate’s approval, for they are de facto vegan: rice, lentils, oatmeal (for muesli and cooked porridge, which you can eat sweet or savory), and pasta. Make sure your mini pantry is stocked with sensible aromatics to prevent you from driving to the nearest junk food chain when you’re snow-bored: tomato paste (in a tube, so you can portion it according to your needs); olive oil; rice or white wine vinegar; oil-packed anchovies, spices, and aromatic seeds (pepper, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, chili flakes, dried thyme, oregano, cinnamon); honey, soy sauce, Dijon mustard, jam, and peanut butter. (The last one is not merely for PB&Js but also for savory sauces that go well with cooked vegetables as well as chicken, rice, or noodles: whisk until smooth with hot water, adding soy sauce, honey, and chili flakes.) Also get UHT milk (try to get the kind that comes in small, 1 pint packages), raw almonds and raisins, and the one concession to convenience I would not scoff at: bouillon cubes (get vegetarian, sodium-free ones), as you’ll be glad to be able to whip up a quick hot broth you can add pretty much anything to when the cold creeps into your bones. As for canned goods, I would limit them to tuna, chickpeas, black beans, and plum tomatoes for a quick pasta sauce. Pan frying a chicken breast is, by the way, almost as easy as frying an egg: season it, brown it on both sides, add a splash of water or wine to the pan, cover it quickly with a lid to not lose the steam, and cook over a medium flame until done, just a few more minutes.

Onions and garlic keep well and will boost the flavors of any savory dish, cooked or raw, and as far as fresh produce goes, squashes and cabbage will keep for a long time without wilting (they’re both delicious cut up or sliced and pan fried with some aromatics. Come to think of it, a couple of jars of kimchi or sauerkraut might cheer you up when things get sour, and both are packed with nutrients.

In general, you should conceive all your meals as “one-dish meals,” where you try to create a balanced combination of a starch, a protein, vegetable, leafy greens, and aromatics—not necessarily all cooked together but served together, heaped on top of one another. Just to get you started, here is my recipe for stewed red lentils (red lentils are milder and more refined than common lentils and also cook much faster), adapted from my culinary memoir, The Art of Gay Cooking and simplified for your purpose.

Stir-fry one diced onion until translucent in some olive oil before adding 1 small knob of peeled and minced ginger, 1 finely diced carrot, 2 finely diced celery stalks, and 3–4 finely diced fennel stalks and fronds. Once the mixture is steaming and fragrant, add about 1 tablespoon each of coriander seeds and cumin seeds, lightly crushed between the palms of your hands. Push the vegetables to the sides of the pan, pour a tiny a bit of olive oil into the center of the pan and add about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Let it caramelize for about a minute without stirring, then add about 2 cups of red lentils. Stir well and cook for another minute before adding 2½ cups of water. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat down to the lowest setting, cover, and cook gently until the lentils have absorbed most of the water and are tender but still holding their shape, for 10–15 minutes. Stir occasionally and add more water, no more than a ½ cup at a time, if the mixture gets dry before the lentils are done. Don’t overcook them, they should still hold their shape and have some bite to them. Season with salt to taste. Best with steamed basmati rice and a dollop of thick Greek yogurt, plus some sliced scallions and chopped herbs like cilantro, parsley, fennel fronds, or celery leaves. The next day, mix leftover lentils with broth for a soothing soup into which you can drop chunks of bread for sustenance.

My favorite dessert is crème brûlée, and I make it for dinner parties fairly regularly. I’ve experimented with flavoring the crème in different ways other than vanilla, but now I’m wondering if there are other variations or similar desserts you might recommend I try. To be clear, it’s less the crunchy brûlée I adore and more the perfectly light, not too sweet satisfaction of the custard at the end of the meal, as well as the individual portioning.

There are several categories of creamy desserts for you to choose from: custards, sweetened and flavored milk thickened with egg or egg yolks; puddings, thickened with corn starch or rice; mousses, a flavored and more or less stable foam usually made of egg whites or heavy cream; and gelled desserts that rely on gelatin, tapioca, or agar-agar. And then there are the hybrids: a Bavarian cream, for example, is a custard that’s fortified with gelatin and lightened with whipped cream, whereas the classic crème pâtissière is a hybrid between custard and pudding. There are countless variations, like the crema Catalana, an egg yolk–fortified pudding with a burnt sugar top that is not done by broiling but with a special, heated iron. And then, there are warm variations like Zabaglione, a thick foam made of sweet wine (or Champagne) and egg yolks, and, of course, the soufflés, made of a flavored base like a custard or a fruit purée, lightened with beaten egg whites and baked to rise. All of these are commonly served in individual portions, be it ramekins or glasses, and have thus a more formal air to them—with the disadvantage that there are (usually) no seconds to be had.

Most of these can be flavored with aromatics, and once you move past the big four (vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and caramel), the sky is the limit: lemon and orange peel, jasmine or Earl Grey tea, matcha (way too fashionable these days), tonka bean (all the rage and still illegal in the U.S., procure it at your own risk), pandan, bitter apricot kernels, pistachio, anise, licorice, black sesame, praliné (roasted hazelnut and caramel), taro, mint, anise hyssop (my new favorite), lime leaf, or fig leaf, to name a few. But it’s always worth revisiting the classics to appreciate their sophisticated simplicity. Here are three you can count on and eventually create your own variations of.

Crème caramel: Pour a heaped cup of white sugar into a saucepan and set it over a low medium flame. Do not stir the sugar as it melts, merely shake the pan gently. Once it is liquefied and cooked to a dark-amber color, pour a bit of caramel into each of 8 ramekins, just enough to cover the bottom. Rub the seeds scraped out of one split vanilla bean into a ½ cup of sugar, drop the bean pod halves into the rinsed saucepan, and add 1 tablespoon of sugar and 2 cups of milk (or a mix of milk and cream, but don’t go overboard or it will be nauseatingly rich). Heat it gently without stirring (the sugar creates a syrupy layer on the bottom that prevents the milk solids from curdling), then cut the heat, cover it, and let it rest for 10 minutes to infuse the milk with the vanilla aroma. Add 2 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks to the vanilla sugar and combine the two swiftly without beating any air into them. Scrape any residual seeds from the vanilla pod into the warm milk and add it to the egg mixture, stirring all the while, until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and finally into the ramekins. Set them into a baking dish, add boiling hot water until they are submerged half-way and bake the crèmes for about 40 minutes in a 350 F oven, until set. Chill them overnight: This enables the caramel to dissolve and impart its flavor (and color) onto the cream. You can serve them directly in the ramekins or, running a small knife around their edges, invert them onto small plates. Resist the temptation of adding a superfluous garnish like a lone raspberry: It doesn’t need it.

Mousse au chocolat: Gently melt 125 grams (or 4½ ounces) of semisweet dark chocolate (eyeball the amount from reading the numbers on the tablet) with a tablespoon of butter, set over a bowl of simmering water. Separate 4 eggs and beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt to a soft peak. Swiftly whisk the yolks into the slightly cooled chocolate and gently fold in the egg whites, half of them at a time. Fill into ramekins or Champagne coupes and chill for at least 3 hours. Serves 4. If you want, you can add a bit of very finely grated orange zest to the chocolate mix before adding the whites, but simplicity is the key here. Purists scoff at the increasing tendency to top the mousses with a piped rosette of barely sweetened whipped cream.

Panna cotta: All you need to know is that one package of powdered gelatin, properly bloomed in a bit of cold water, is enough to gel up to 4 cups of boiled cream (although I prefer cutting the cream with 25 percent milk). You could add a little more gelatin, but I prefer a lighter texture, even if it means the individual portions will barely hold their shape when inverted. Flavor the cream as you like by infusing the hot liquid for up to half an hour with the aromatic ingredient of your choice, before straining and gently reheating it; then add the bloomed gelatin so it can dissolve completely. Sweeten it with a minimum of sugar, especially if you’re planning to serve a chocolate sauce or a berry coulis with it. Fill into ramekins and chill for several hours until set. To serve, run a pointed knife along the edge, dip the ramekins into hot water for 10 seconds or so, place an inverted dessert plate over the ramekin, flip it and wait for the panna cotta to plop down on its own before carefully removing the ramekin. If needed, gently lift the ramekin with the tip of the knife and tease the wobbly dessert out.

Finally, here is a recipe for a lesser known hybrid, the white wine cream. Beat 4 egg yolks and a scant ¾ cup of sugar to a soft ribbon. Bloom a package of powdered gelatin in a quarter cup of dry white wine. Gently heat another cup of wine and the strained juice of one lemon (don’t let it come to a boil) and dissolve the bloomed gelatin in it. Add the warm liquid to the egg mixture while stirring, and chill it, stirring now and then, until it begins to set. Beat 1½ cups of heavy cream to a soft peak and gently fold it into the base in two increments. Fill into Martini glasses or Champagne coupes and chill for several hours. In this case, a rosette of whipped cream (reserve a bit of the previously whipped cream for it) will do no harm, whereas a preening mint leaf might.