As a rule, I am not one of those cooks fascinated by the chemical interactions occurring in my dishes or keen to practice molecular gastronomy in my tiny kitchen. I don’t have a copy of McGee to refer to, and I (sigh) tend to skip his articles in the New York Times Wednesday food section.
Primarily, I cook for the pleasure that my companions and I will receive when we eat. I also get a charge from the look of food – the perfect starburst in the flesh of a kiwi fruit, the gorgeous ruby redness of roasted beets, the golden glow of a tarte tatin.
But when the science of cooking is flat-out impossible to ignore, I am not just enamored of food – I am in awe of it. I love it when ingredients transform themselves before my very eyes, like egg whites suddenly metamorphosing into beautiful white foam. I had a moment like this last weekend when I made an impromptu dessert at the urgings of my husband. As noted before, I tend to be a slave to recipes. But since I hadn’t shopped for any particular dessert, I figured no recipe would match what I had on hand. So I decided to improvise and began foraging for ingredients. I found some piecrust dough in the freezer (I refuse to divulge whether this was homemade or Pillsbury), a fifth of a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips and a bottle of roasted chestnuts. (As a side note, I adore roasted chestnuts, particularly their soft, crumbly texture.) Individual chestnut tarts were taking shape in my mind, with melted chocolate drizzled over, but clearly there had to be something creamy for the chestnuts to sit on. Then I remembered a “master” recipe for pastry cream in Dorie Greenspan’s Baking From My Home to Yours, a wonderful cookbook that my mom gave me for Christmas. I had never prepared pastry cream before and found the idea of it a little intimidating. But, I decided to give it a shot.
I had all the ingredients for the cream, save whole milk. I substituted 1% and hoped for the best. The procedure is simple. Boil milk in one saucepan; combine cornstarch, sugar, and egg yolks in another. When the milk starts to boil temper the egg mixture with a quarter cup or so of the milk before whisking in the rest. At this point, the recipe directed that I whisk the cream constantly over high heat for one to two minutes until the liquid thickened. So I did. I was whisking and whisking, and thinking that it probably wouldn’t work and maybe I should give up, when, suddenly, magic – or chemistry – happened. The thin egg/milk mixture became full, yellow, and amazingly creamy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had witnessed a miraculous culinary transformation thanks to my own hands.
The pastry cream was perfect, rich and delicious despite the substitution of 1% milk. The crust left a little to be desired (yes, Pillsbury), but laden with cream, chestnuts and chocolate it was pretty darn good.
I don’t know if I’ll remember the dessert itself for years to come. But I will remember the moment I tapped into the potential of milk, eggs, and a few other ingredients. To me this smacks less of hard science than of a beautiful and fortunate magic, but I’ll settle for believing it’s a little bit of both.