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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 04:31 am

Real women have blowtorches

Light a fire, and make coconut crème brûlée

Untitled Document I firmly believe that every woman should have her own blowtorch. Men, too. Few things are more empowering than having that blue-white tongue of flame under your control. A blowtorch is a handy thing to have in the kitchen. It can be used to brown the top of a casserole or meringue pie. It can be used to peel peppers: Torch them until the skin is completely blackened, wrap them in a paper towel or bag, and let them steam for a few minutes; the peel then easily wipes away. It can be used to glaze fruit: Sprinkle pineapple, peaches, strawberries, and so on with brown sugar, then torch them until the sugar bubbles. Blowtorches are most often used in the kitchen to produce the crunchy sheet of caramelized sugar that is the crucial component of crème brûlée. Crème brûlée is a classic European dessert of vanilla-flavored custard made extra special by that delectable topping.
It is found in many countries, especially France and Spain, but lately it’s been experiencing a surge of popularity in the U.S., frequently appearing on restaurant menus.
Crème brûlée has made its way into home kitchens, too. At least two cookbooks are devoted solely to classic crème brûlée and dozens of variations — most sweet but a few savory. Crème brûlée is ideal for entertaining because most of the work has to be done ahead of time: The custard must be cool for the caramel crust to form; if it’s warm, the sugar becomes syrup. The torching, on the other hand, must be done immediately before serving, or the caramel softens. It still tastes good, but a big part of crème brûlée’s appeal is the contrast between the crunchy topping and luscious creamy custard — and, as a bonus, you get to impress family and friends with your blowtorch skills. Riding the wave of crème brûlée’s popularity, cooking shops and catalogs are now offer a small “kitchen” blowtorch. Its flame is wimpy and its tiny fuel canisters empty quickly. I prefer — as do most chefs — a regular blowtorch from the hardware store. Not only does it perform better, but there’s also no denying that it makes a statement.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
I devised this recipe years ago as part of a Caribbean menu, but it’s a delicious finish to almost any meal. Serving it in the coconut halves is especially attractive, but it could also be made in shallow ramekins.
Coconut Crème Brûlée

Two or three small coconuts 1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 1 cup heavy cream 1 cup canned coconut milk (unsweetened)    from a well-shaken can 1 tablespoon Meyer’s rum, optional Half a vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract Pinch of salt Four large egg yolks 4 to 6 tablespoons sugar
Check the coconuts for freshness by shaking them. You should hear liquid sloshing inside. Crack the coconuts by tapping them around their perimeter with a cleaver or the thick end of a heavy knife. This is not a job for your best knives. Rotate the coconut as you tap over a towel to catch the liquid. When the coconut is cracked, discard the liquid, and finish halving it. Blot the inside moisture with paper towels or a lint-free dishcloth. Put the coconuts in the freezer or refrigerator. In a medium heavy-bottomed nonreactive pan, mix the brown sugar and cornstarch together well. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and mix them in (extract should be added later). Whisk in the heavy cream, coconut milk, rum, and salt and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, for about five minutes, or until the mixture has thickened. Put the egg yolks in a blender or food processor. Process until the yolks are blended, then slowly add the cream mixture in a thin stream. Pour the mixture back into the pan, reduce the heat to very low, and return the pan to the stove. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thickened and smooth, heavily coats a spoon, and bubbles are just starting to form. Do not let the mixture boil, or it will curdle. Remove the pan from the heat, then add the vanilla extract, if you are using it, and continue stirring for a few minutes until the radiant heat from the pan has died down. Cool the contents to room temperature.
Remove the coconut halves from the refrigerator and prop them upright by placing them in large muffin pans or small bowls or by forming a foil collar around them. Divide the custard among the coconuts and rap them on the counter to smooth the tops. Refrigerate the coconuts, covered with plastic wrap, for several hours, until the custard has become firm. The shells may be prepared three or four days ahead. Just before serving, remove the custards from the refrigerator. Sprinkle them evenly with the sugar — about a tablespoon each. Using a blowtorch in a slow circular motion, heat the sugar until it caramelizes and forms a hard crust. This may also be done under a broiler — be sure to check as the custards brown and rotate them if necessary. Serve immediately. Stabilize the coconuts in bowls of crushed ice, pebbles, or tiny shells or with the use of foil collars hidden under flowers. Serves four to six.
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