There has never been a better time to lay off the heart-shaped and maraschino-red dyed food madness than this Valentine’s Day. Not that there’s anything wrong with Russell Stover- okay, maybe there’s a lot wrong with Russell Stover- it’s just that February 14th is the beginning of predictable three month sugar slump that reaches a high point with St. Patrick’s Day brisket obliterated in brown sugar, and ends sometime at the beginning of Spring (April 8 this year) with a monumental pile of foamy, Marshmallow Peeps. Tis the season to eat processed corn syrup.
There are effective arguments against any and every food you can possibly eat, and there’s no journalist currently diverting your attention to this issue more emphatically than Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan’s most recent must-read was this New York Times Magazine section cover story. “Unhappy Meals” is about how policymakers, scientists, and media change the way we eat by retraining our palettes on the chemical component parts of food, their real and imagined benefits, and away from whole foods. “Unhappy Meals” covers a lot of ground- none too thoroughly- but that’s one of Pollan’s main arguments: if we stop to consider, for example, the 38 antioxidants found in garden-variety thyme (see pages 2-3 here), we may be doing ourselves more harm than good, by focusing on questions that don’t have easy answers. With dizzying style, “Unhappy Meals” attempts to explain what we talk about when we talk about food, and Pollan ultimately makes some suggestions about how to avoid the bigger tourist traps as we continue to eat our way through the roads of life. For instance: “[A]void food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.” With that in mind, the following Valentine’s Day recipe has only five ingredients, and nary a glob of corn syrup to be found. “Muscovado” may be slightly hard to pronounce, but whatever. We’ll get to that.
Presented here, with a lot of subtext, is a recipe for Muscovado Sugar Crème Brulee with Grapefruit. Meet Muscovado sugar- an unrefined sweetener, a k a “black” or “red” sugar. It comes from Mauritius, and doesn’t really taste like sugar, or even Sugar in the Raw, which is actually a something called Turbinado sugar. Muscovado has deep molasses notes, but also a slight, mineral tang finish. It’s mineral rich, high in Potassium and Calcium; in general it’s substantially higher in all kinds of vitamins and minerals not commonly found in refined white sugar. But don’t think about that, at least for now, Pollan might say. You’re making dessert.
Oh, and Muscovado Sugar is brown; black when cooked. While traditional brown sugar is made by mixing Molasses with processed white sugar, Muscovado is made from the undisguised slush of sugar cane juice leftover from the process of refinement. The Muscovado we used for this recipe came from Cobble Hill’s very own Stinky, the Smith Street specialty foods shop. Stinky also stocks Demerara, a lighter, non-refined sugar, which can be substituted in this recipe.
There are a number of cheeky, potential tie-in themes here: “Black sugar” casts the image of a bleak and forsaken, gothic Valentine; the “torching” of the sugar-topped cream comes off like projection. In addition to all of this, it is thought that an enzyme-binding compound in grapefruit juice itself, of course, might interfere with several prescription medications, including some anti-depressants. Like all food, there's a lot to worry about. It’s far from perfect, this recipe, in the spirit of Pollan's “Unhappy Meals” message, especially when you consider the combined saturated fat from the egg yolks and the heavy cream. Does fat make you fat? Does it matter that the sugar won’t turn crispy? Like love, crème brulee is sometimes best handled carefully, and not analyzed to death. And in that, perhaps there is one overriding lesson here.
Eat what your heart tells you to eat, and Happy Valentine’s Day.
Black Sugar Crème Brulee with Red Grapefruit
4 egg yolks
¼ cup dark muscovado sugar
1 cup of heavy cream
muscovado sugar for “brulee”
1 ruby red grapefruit
Preheat oven to 250, and bring a kettle of water to a boil on top of the stove. In a bowl, whisk muscovado sugar and egg yolks until uniform and slightly frothy. Reserve. In a small saucepan, bring heavy cream to a simmer with a pinch of kosher salt- make sure not to boil. Turn off heat.
Add heavy cream to egg yolk mixture, one tablespoon at a time, whisking with the other hand. The whisking will prevent curdling. After a few tablespoons of cream have been added, pour the egg yolk mix back into the remaining heavy cream in a slow, steady, stream, until the cream mixture is well blended. It should thicken slightly as you do this.
Pour mixture into ramekins or ovenproof coffee mugs that have been placed inside a pan with at least a two-inch lip (use a sauté pan with a high rim or a roasting pan). Place pan in oven, and pour the boiled water from the kettle to match the height of the crème mixture. Close oven door carefully. Cook for 1 hour, remove from oven, and refrigerate.
Peel grapefruit with a paring knife, working around pith, and cut the fruit into supremes. Spread muscovado sugar on top of custard, spooning a pile in the center and tilting the ramekin around, until you have a uniform distribution of sugar. Torch gently- you can also use a torch-style cigarette lighter- without touching the flame to the sugar. Be careful, and try not to burn the sugar. It will get bitter.
Garnish with grapefruit segments, or raspberries if you’d prefer not to have citrus with your crème. Candy hearts optional.
Note: Dark Muscovado Sugar is available, $5/lb., at Stinky Brooklyn, 261 Smith Street, Brooklyn 718-522-7425