Saturday, November 13, 2010

Who Will Save Your Soul?

asked Jewel in 1995.  I somehow persuaded my mom to donate $15 to get me the CD at Target, and I listed to it incessantly the entire summer before I turned 12.  Every once and a while 'Adrian' or 'Foolish Games' would move me to bitter preteen tears, because, you know, there was a lot of shit going on.  Like, moving.  And getting boobs. 

Oh, the nineties.

Well if I were able to find the CD now (which is extremely unlikely), my answer would be: Chocolate Cream Pie. 

My soul has been hungry lately.  I haven't had time for the things that nourish it: last week, we ate take-out on a Manhattanite level of dependency.  I got home late almost every night, and thanked the turned-off lights and time change for concealing the sink of dirty dishes and laundry on the floor.  Reading has been grating on my nerves, and my writing is just pissing me off.  Work is getting more and more frenzied; my desk is covered in to-dos that never get done and there's no relief in sight.  My school semester's ending in a week, and I made a major blunder in sending my advisor the wrong draft of my latest work.  I gained two-tenths of a pound.  I yelled at my husband, snapped at a pregnant lady at Babies 'R Us that cut in front of me, and almost strangled an old man (believe me, he had it coming).  I'm not boring, but I do treasure my routine and a general sense of control.  Right now, I feel like my life is just flying and spinning and crashing away from me.

This week, I knew I was going to have to take care of myself, before I completely snapped.  It was time for pajamas, Dexter on DVD, and homemade food.  I spread my recipe file thick over the living room floor, plucking cookies and bars and cumin-ey chicken recipes that looked good and contemplating the possibilities.  What really got me going, though, was getting into the Cooks Illustrated Holiday Baking magazine I picked up at Costco.

Cooks Illustrated is kind of my new obsession.  Like most things, it was introduced to me by my mom.  She's clued me in to pretty much every revolution in my foodie life.  From Pampered Chef parties right around the time I was popping Jewel into my little boom box to unlocking the secrets of Penzey's when I still thought Clackamas was only good for the town center, she's like the Anna Wintour of culinary trends.  Except without the whole no-soul thing. 

If Ina Garten and Alton Brown had some freakishly smart, elegant baby, it would be Cooks Illustrated.  Infinitely more detailed and dedicated than any other food magazine out there (yes, beloved Bon Appetit included), Cooks Illustrated doesn't rely on food-porn shoots, Godiva ads and celebutard chefs to keep it sexy.  It's just meticulously tested and researched recipes, coupled with well-written articles on the why's of the ingredients, the importance of techniques and any other pertinent details to create The Perfect ______.  Today, I decided I was going to attempt The Perfect Chocolate Cream Pie.

Matt and I aren't really dessert people.  We'd much rather eat a bunch of bread and cheese than sugar.  But after carefully crafting and absolutely enjoying it today, I think I might have to reconsider its role.  A little can go such a long way, especially since my sweet tooth is pretty easily satisfied.  And as much as I love savory cooking, there's nothing that compares to combining atom-simple ingredients like eggs, cream and sugar into masterpieces that you could peddle in a patisserie - or at least give to happy friends and family.  Smashing a box of unsuspecting Oreos with a meat mallet saved me $35 in therapy alone. 

Whipping egg yolks into a froth, gently simmering cream and slowly incorporating just-barely-sweetened chocolate... it all felt very French to me.  Granted, my frame of reference is small and stereotypical, peppered with movie-theater influences of Ratatouille and Taken (so I expect to get to Paris, be served by a rat and sold into white slavery).  To me, France is a place where people understand the importance of standing in a kitchen over real ingredients, of observing their change throughout the cooking process with all the senses, and of being able to tune out the noise and, just for a moment, simply being there.

I'm trying to accept certain inevitabilities.  I will not always be a perfect student.  I probably won't be Employee of the Year.  I can be very hard to live with.  Sometimes dinner is going to be Subway sandwiches.  When that happens, have a cookie.  It's a slice of la dolce vida (and yes, I know that's Italian - I won't always be a great writer who can carry an arcing theme through a whole blog, either).  I need to keep more of them around.

For now, I have a fridge stocked with 9/10ths of a Chocolate Cream Pie and a giant bowl of homemade whipped cream.  This thoughtful recipe combines bittersweet and unsweeted chocolate to create a silky custard with a full chocolate flavor that isn't too sweet.  It's like an old-school Jell-O pudding recipe that put on thigh-highs and MAC eyeliner.  The Oreo crust adds an unexpected dash of saltiness, a sort of fleur-de-sel crunch.  Enjoy extra bites while you listen to your cat and husband snore. 

16 Oreo cookies
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
2 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
6 large egg yolks, room temperature
6 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 oz unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

FOR THE CRUST:  Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.  Smash Oreos into uniformly fine bits.  Transfer crumbs to medium bowl, drizzle with butter, and use fingers to combine until butter is evenly distributed.

Transfer crumbs to 9-inch glass plate.  Use bottom of 1/2 cup measuring cup or spoon to press crumbs evenly into bottom and up sides, forming crust.  Refrigerate lined pie plate 20 minutes to firm crumbs, then bake until crumbs are fragrant and set, about 10 minutes.  Cool on wire rack while preparing filling.

FOR THE FILLING:  Bring half-and-half, salt, and about 3 tbsp of sugar to simmer in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon to dissolve sugar.  Stir together remaining sugar and cornstarch into small bowl.  Whisk yolks thoroughly in medium bowl until slightly thickened, about 30 seconds.  Sprinkle cornstarch mixture over yolks and whisk, scraping down sides of bowl if necessary until mixture is glossy and sugar has begun to dissolve, about 1 minute.  When half-and-half reaches full simmer, drizzle about 1/2 cup hot half-and-half over yolks, whisking constantly to temper; then whisk egg yolk mixture into simmering half-and-half (mixture should thicken in about 30 seconds).  Return to simmer, whisking constantly, until 3 or 4 bubbles burst on surface and almost burn you and mixture is thickened and glossy, about 15 seconds longer.

Off heat, whisk in butter until incorporated, add chocolates and whisk until melted, scraping pan bottom with rubber spatula to fully incorporate.  Stir in vanilla, then immediately pour filling through fine mesh sieve over bowl.  Using spatula, scrape strained filling into baked and cooled crust.  Press plastic wrap directly on surface of filling and refrigerate pie until filling is cold and firm, about 3 hours.

FOR THE TOPPING:  When ready to serve, beat cream and sugar in chilled bowl of electric mixer at medium speed to soft peaks; add vanilla.  Continue to beat to barely stiff peaks.  Spread or pipe whipped cream over chilled filling.  Serve immediately.

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