Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Caramel Sauce Snobbery

Am I a snob?

I mean, I don't think of myself as a snob. I don't consciously look down on folks who don't cook as assiduously as I do (read: don't undertake lunatic baking projects at 3am). But several friends have poked fun at my tendency to refuse any culinary shortcuts. They do it mostly to get a rise out of me, but it is true: I stubbornly attempt to make (almost) everything from scratch.

I can think of many reasons why I do this. First and foremost is my desire to be good at everything. I don't count that as one of my neuroses. Rather, I have a mindset from bygone era: in a more civilized age, a Gentleman was supposed to demonstrate a mastery of many skills: riding, dancing, fencing, hunting, the niceties of high society, etc. While some of those abilities are regrettably defunct, I still think a sign of class when someone has interests and [dare-I-say] proficiency in a variety of fields.

There you go: I'm in my twenties and am already coming out as a nostalgic fossil. Go figure.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. I recently rediscovered the blog of an old friend of mine, The Moody Foody. Michelle and I went to high school in the Caribbean together, spending most of our extra-curricular time on the theatre dept's tiny tiny stage. I still have vivid memories of her bringing the house down as a fiery Italian matron. After so many years, it was a lot of fun to find that she'd become a foody and going over her culinary adventures through New York and the Old Continent.

That is, until I came to her recent post about Caramel Apples. Not having been able to make the caramel sauce from scratch, she reverted to (gasp!) Kraft Caramel! Michelle, Michelle, how could you? Capital treason!

Thus went the first few reactions from my stunned and horrified brain. But then I saw the pictures she left behind (nice dramatic touch, leaving those at the end, btw). And you know what? Those apples look damn good. I like them apples. And that was enough to give me pause and reflect. Why is the idea of purchasing pre-made portions of recipe such a repulsive idea?

I can think of arguments for both sides of the question, but since I don't want to take on a global theoretical debate, I pondered a simpler question: what does it mean for me? The answer is: I'm not sure. There's nothing strictly wrong about the ideology of it. By that, I mean to say that I can't find reason to condemn someone for buying something they could have made themselves. If that were so, were would we draw the line? Should we bake our own bread whenever we want a PB&J? Or take it to an extreme: let's all move out of the city and become farmers. We'll make everything ourselves. Because a national agrarian society is definitely the way to go. Right. (rolls eyes)

I simply believe that everyone should know how to cook. To quote a literary character: "He who cooks well, eats well." It doesn't mean that you have to be in utter control all the time, but it does imply a certain level of awareness about what you consume. Not only is that a damn good idea from a dietary point of view, but it also means you can prepare your meals to your own taste (instead of fitting into the generic consumer model). And that, of course, brings in the capitalist industry take on it. I simply don't want some big company telling me what to eat. Especially not when the ingredient list usually contains sugar, sugar, corn syrup, and some flavouring. My uncle is an industrial chef, and he doesn't eat his products, for crying out loud.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter. I'm still going to make everything from scratch. Why? Because I can. Because doing so makes me happy. That's enough for me, and I'm not out to change anyone's mind on the matter. If that makes me a culinary snob, then so be it. It doesn't bother me if other people approach it from a different angle (so Michelle, you're still ok in my books). After all, diversity makes life all the more interesting, and that goes for the kitchen, too.

SO! To conclude this long, drawn-out reflection (who knew a post about caramel apples could do such a thing?), I going to respond to Michelle's challenge. She asked to be given a single good, interesting recipe for caramel sauce this Halloween. I'm going to do one better, since there's only so much creativity you can put into butter, sugar, and cream. This is the dish that I'll be bringing to a party this weekend. It's clipped from the November edition of the Food & Wine magazine.

Caramel-Croissant Pudding
  • 2 stale all-butter croissants, coarsely torn
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 Tbs bourbon
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly bitter a 1-quart shallow baking dish and arrange the croissant pieces in the dish. In a small saucepan, stir the sugar and water over moderately high heat until the sugar dissolves; wash down any crystals on the sides with a wet pastry brush. Cook without stirring until a medium amber caramel forms, about 5min. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream, milk, and bourbon. Cook over low heat just until any hardened caramel dissolves.

2. In a bowl, whisk the eggs. Gradually whisk in the hot caramel. Pour over the croissants and let stand for 10min, pressing the croissants to keep them submerged.

3. Bake the pudding in the center of the oven for 20min, until puffed and golden. Let cool for 10min, then serve.

  • I realise the irony in using a recipe from Food & Wine after discussing snobbery. Believe me, I don't read it for the articles.

  • If you start talking about this dish out loud, do me a favour: pretend you're French when saying "croissant" (the r is guttural and the t is silent). This is not me being a snob; this is me having a pet peeve. Do your part to stop the mispronunciation of foreign words!
Victory! I made the pudding successfully last night. I will confess I was pretty nervous when the caramel first turned out completely liquid, as opposed to the the viscous, gooey deliciousness I was expecting -- but 20min in the oven fixed that. Surprisingly, even though the croissants are submerged in this sugary liquid for several minutes before cooking, they loose none of their buttery flaky texture. This is definitely not a mushy bread pudding. It's not crisp, per se, but you could almost cut it into squares and eat with your hands. Definitely recommended for your sweet tooth!

Happy Halloween!


mums said...

It's people like you who make marshmallows from scratch. I don't like them enough to try that. On the other hand, I've always wanted to learn how to make real mincemeat. Maybe when I retire....

Steve said...

You'll need a salt marsh (Chicago is built on a marsh, but I don't know if it was salt or fresh)

Marshmallow from scratch
A plant ( Althea officinalis ) which grows near salt marshes. The confection was originally in the 1880s made from the sap of the roots of this plant.

Neen said...

Do you watch Glee? This post has the same voice as Kurt Hummel.

Do says, "You know the only problem with your brother? He lives in Chicago and not here. This is a problem to be solved."

And We cook meals from scratch because we use (much) higher quality inputs than even most restaurants. Better quality meats, eggs, and veggies. I do so because a) they taste better, and b) I like to support ethical food systems, it makes me feel good about myself.

Of course, there are still things I shy away from making from scratch. The list includes deep fried anything, ice cream, and stock. Silly, but true. When recipes have instructions for these items, my eyes sort of glaze over. Ah well.

Spuds said...


@Neen: mumble grumble about your residence and access to quality foodstuffs. Hmph. Oh, and I'm with you on ice cream -- but that's mainly because every recipe I've ever seen is essentially: "combine ingredients; make ice cream in ice cream machine" >.<