My mother had been asking me to make creme brulee since December, when she received four ramekins as a Christmas present. My father had been asking me since December to use the kitchen torch that he gave her along with the dishes.
My afternoon today was more open than normal, a math test earlier this week leading to no math homework today. I spent the afternoon working with the oven, beginning with carrying pine logs from the woodpile near the lawn-mower shed over to the raised-bed that sits beside the oven. The weather was beautiful, sun, birds, green grass, all the cliches of a summer day. Each time I stepped outside to check on the fire, I passed through the greenhouse and was surrounded by the scent of warm potting soil that the black plastic pots of seedlings were giving off. The old dented metal bowl that my mother has mixed soil in as far back as I can remember is sitting on the curved cement work table that my father built her just a few summers ago, a project that followed directly on the heels of the pizza oven.
I took my time today, working on building up the heat in the oven slowly, following advice that I've been given the past three weeks, each time my results were smoky, burnt, or otherwise unsatisfactory. Be more patient, my mother said. It works better if you plan ahead, my father said.
When the oven was pushing waves of constant heat out into the already warm air and the stones had been sitting under the fire for two hours, with the creme brulee sitting in the ramekins inside on the counter, I unwound the hose and scraped the still glowing coals out, through the ash hole until they were scattered under the oven. I sprayed them over thoroughly, not wanting anything that shouldn't catch fire to catch fire. Barefoot on the stone, when I tried to step closer, a wayward coal became trapped under my foot, searing my toe.
I was patient with the custards, setting each ramekin carefully into a larger metal pan and filling it halfway with water, a water bath, supposed to control their cooking rate so that they came out smooth and creamy. I checked them after an hour. Still wobbly. After two hours. Their centers jiggled. After three hours. They were deep yellow, smelled of rich cream and vanilla, and they were still not set. Spanish class rapidly approaching, I pulled them out of the brick oven and carried them to the inside oven. It felt like cheating, but I was getting worried about the eggs, sitting out there in the warmth, but not quite cooking.
Once inside one of the smooth white convection ovens set into our kitchen wall, the custards set up quickly. I ate dinner, pulled them out of the water bath to better cool, found my books and keys, wrapped the cremes brulee and set them in the refrigerator and drove to class. By the time I made it home, I was tired, but I wanted to see this project through to the end. I called my mother into the kitchen.
Together, we located the raw sugar and the kitchen torch. Neither of us knew how it worked. I can operate the foot long torch that we use for creme brulee at work, but I didn't want to break this one by fiddling with it. My father came to the rescue, showing us how to obtain flame. I took the first custard, gave it a thin layer of sugar, then passed the torch slowly across its top, in circular patterns, as the sugar rose up, bubbled unhappily, then turned to a dark golden brown and subsided. Another layer of sugar, then I repeated my actions. When the sugar was all dissolved into a crust across the top of the ramekin, I passed the torch to my mother. My father hung over her shoulder a bit. "You can hold it closer," he advised, as she maneuvered the flame. She achieved her desired result, retiring to her desk with one of the ramekins. I offered the third custard to my father and he put his advice to action, passing the torch so quickly and closely across the surface that some of the sugar blackened.
We shattered one of the sugar crusts, spooning into the deep cream-yellow underneath. No smoke flavor. My father commented on this and I smiled. My parents have their wishes fulfilled, creme brulee and kitchen torch, I have mine fulfilled, no smoke flavor in this dessert. I have taken their advice and things have come out better.
I stayed in the kitchen a bit longer, putting away clean dishes, washing up some of the dirty ones. My father, quietly retired to the couch in the living room, my mother stayed at her computer, though I knew she would join him in a few minutes.
And I know that yes, my father built the oven and my mother taught me how to follow a recipe. But this evening is built on things deeper than that. I know that whenever I need advice, they will give it and it will be good advice. I know that even when I make smoky pineapple baklava that we have to throw out because no-one can stomach it, they will encourage me. I know that they will send me to bed, shortly, so that I can get up in the morning and go to math class. And I think that this is what family was meant to be like.