There are two textures when it comes to crème brûlée. The first texture is the burnt sugar that covers the top. It’s actually caramel which is made with sugar and is placed on top then torched with fire. That cooks the sugar and crystalizes. When you dig in you have to pierce through the top layer and when you bite it, you get the sharp, crystalized bites that are oh so sweet. It’s the same allure of a roasted marshmallow, but in a more candy-like form. The second texture comes from the custard that is underneath the sugar and that has the clammy texture that all custard has. Having worked in a place for a longtime that served flan, I came to realize over the years that the consistency of custard is essentially that of phlegm. Tasty phlegm, but phlegm nonetheless. It’s thicker than a liquid. It’s even thicker than Jell-O. But you can still squench it through your teeth as it bobs around your mouth. The two textures combine nicely however. The crunch of the sugar reminds you that you’re not eating a loogie. The creaminess of the custard protects your mouth from being overly sliced by shards of crystalized sugar. The perfect balance. Plus it tastes good too. I’ve been a fan since I first tried it.
Crème brûlée comes from France and it first appeared in 1691 in a cookbook by famed chef François Massialot. It literally means “burnt cream” and you can tell where that comes from. It became extremely popular in the 1980s and was the dessert of choice at restaurants riding that wave of greed and self-indulgence. It was an opulent dessert and so all those Gordon Gekko types trying to impress each other. Then it started appearing everywhere and it eventually became too commonplace. Then it fell off dessert menus as people were demanding the next popular sweet (like flourless tortes and cake pops). But it seems to be making a slight comeback (as classic food will tend to do) and it is turning up on more and more dessert menus, this time with a little more foodie-flare. It’s actually on the menu at a few of the restaurants where I work. I haven’t really had the opportunity to enjoy our restaurants yet, so since it was National Crème Brûlée Day, I figured it was a good time to visit one.
I don’t think I have mentioned on the blog where I have been working, at least by name. It’s called the Newport Harbor Corporation. It’s a Rhode Island based restaurant company that owns and operates 14 properties. Most are restaurants although they also operate a world class inn and a wedding facility as part of the mix. They are the parent company of the Newport Restaurant Group which is made up by restaurants that are fairly well-known in the area. The Mooring, 22 Bowen’s and The Boat House to name a few. I’m a Marketing Coordinator for them which is similar to the job I used to do, although I’m a little lower in the ranks than from where I used to be. There’s an odd familiarity to it all. A Bizarro World where it’s the same, but different. The restaurants are definitely a class above what I was familiar with, but at the core, hospitality is hospitality. It’s a good company and I’m glad I was able to find a home here. Today Laura had an appointment late in the day in Providence and because we would both be in that area, we thought it might be nice to go to dinner. We needed a little respite from all the commotion in our life. One of the fringe benefits of the job is that I have an allotment I can spend at the restaurants every quarter. I haven’t used any of that yet, so tonight was a good chance to take advantage of that and go to dinner in Providence. We decided to go to Hemenway’s which is in the heart of the city right on the Providence River. And best of all, they have a Crème Brûlée for dessert.
Last year, Lola and I had gone to see the Waterfire in Providence. That’s an event that they hold every few weeks in the summer where they light little basins filled with firewood strategically placed within the river so the river is illuminated by roaring fires. It’s a unique experience and kind of magical. There are boats in the water too, gondolas mostly, slowly flowing with the tide alongside the flames. There is music playing throughout the area that adds to magic of the night as it blends with the sounds or crackling fires. The Waterfire brings in crowds of people to Providence and the areas and walkways surrounding the river are filled with people. There is food available at outside venues along the river and they even have beer and wine that you can walk around with. It’s quite the scene and really a unique experience. When we went (and we have since gone again), we spent our time strolling along and we came across a park that was illuminated with luminaries and lanterns adding more mystique to the night. We saw a couple get engaged there. At the end of the park, there was a big building that had giant glass windows and you could see that people were eating and dining inside. We saw the building but didn’t really know what it was. We weren’t sure if it was a bar, a restaurant, a coffee place or a club. It looked cool but we turned around and continued walking about the park. That building was Hemenway’s.
The restaurant has that classic city-restaurant feel – high ceilings, dark wood décor, white table linens. But there are also floor to ceiling windows which keeps the building well-lit and bright. There is a raised bar in the center of the room, a raw bar facing the street and the rest is filled with comfortable seats and tables. When we walked in we were greeted by the manager who I knew by name and through email, but this was the first time I had met him in person. He was very welcoming and took us to our seat. He even sprinkled some rose pedals on our table for a little extra touch. Clearly he knew National Crème Brûlée Day deserved extra touches of celebration. Our waiter came right over and was super friendly and helpful. He got us some drinks and then some oysters to start us off. We were following his recommendations and he was guiding us right. The oysters were fabulous. For dinner, I went with the filet and Lola had surf and turf with crab and pork chops. Those were both top notch too. It was a fabulous dinner and just what we both needed. Then it came time for dessert. Our waiter suggested the Key Lime Pie and I scoffed. That day is in September. I proudly said I’ll have the Crème Brûlée, and to make haste with it. Lola however, always one to be tempted by a good Key Lime Pie, ordered a piece of that.
It was billed as vanilla bean Crème Brûlée with ginger madeline and candied almonds. I suppose the almonds were intended to be mixed in with the custard to add more flavors to the bites but I just popped them in in my mouth all at once. They were fantastic, covered in caramel and crunchy. That was a good start. The ginger madeline, which looked like biscotti but was soft in texture, I pushed to the side. Then I made that first dig into the Crème Brûlée which is as satisfying as the first scoop into a new jar of peanut butter. I tapped the crystallized sugar first and then plunged my spoon down to break through and get at the custard. It was as good as I wanted it to be, maybe even better. Delicately sweet, crunchy but creamy too. The vanilla bean flavor was prominent and you could see specs of the bean throughout the custard. This was the best I could hope for when going for Crème Brûlée. It turns out that a madeline is actually a small cake traditionally in the shape of a shell, so that explained the soft texture. I used it to scoop up some custard and that was a good combination. Your first bite would hit you with a very small hint of ginger but as you chewed, that flavor grew and it finished with a strong twinge of ginger. It was unique and mixed well with the vanilla, and I’m not even a huge ginger fan (except for Lola).
Fantastic. Simply fantastic. It was a night that we both needed and it all came together perfectly. We were both in Providence. We wanted to try one of the restaurants I am working for. We wanted Crème Brûlée. There are few better ways to celebrate this dessert. I got a good sense of the quality of the company I work for and the product. It’s nice to be part of a place that brings so many smiles. It’s also nice to have the kind of perks that allow us to go out for meals like this. Our battle rages on and we were calling and writing and praying all day, fighting the good fight, but at the end of the day, we needed a break. We got one. It felt a bit odd to be out celebrating in the midst of all this, but if I have learned anything about celebrating it’s that you need to do it every day. Just a little. But every day. That’s what 361 days of doing this gives you, that and a crispy coated plate of delicious phlegm.
Next up: National Milk Chocolate Day