How my Rust Belt Dad Became the Master of Crème Brûlée

A father’s ritualistic recipe testing yields the perfect French dessert

By Allie Wist

Published on June 16, 2015

As my dad jerks the oven open he explains his methodical process—the latest iteration in his attempts at custard-filled success. Eight porcelain ramekins jangle against the edges of the sheet tray as he pulls them out. "This time, I added a tiny bit more egg. It has to be just firm enough,” he says.

He clanks the pan onto the stovetop and leaves his purple oven mitt on as he leans over to inspect the pale yellow rounds. He squints. "See how the texture is this time? That's the perfect amount of egg. And can you smell the vanilla? I went with even more vanilla. Just another half teaspoon."

I can't take the crème brûlée analysis as seriously as he wants me to. He gestures for me to come closer, to share in the inspection. I'm half expecting him to start scribbling notes and figures and measurements on a scratchpad, not unlike a culinary John Nash.

My dad grew up outside of Pittsburgh, and fulfilled his geographic destiny with a career at steel plants. He was a metallurgist turned businessman, almost comically passionate about chemical bonds and steel coatings. He met my mother in ARMCO Steel’s melt shop. When I was a kid, he would take me to Target, and, in front of the battery display, explain in detail which ones bore his stainless coated steel, and which ones used cheap Chinese steel—those were the ones we weren’t allowed to buy.

Growing up with a science-minded, energetic nerd for a dad made me two things: One, the victim of unsolicited math tutoring; and two, an unwitting assistant for a variety of projects. I helped measure wood for a new kitchen table, loaded gunpowder into a bullet-casting machine to make skeet shooting ammunition, and screwed bolts onto transformer parts.

My father touring steel mills with co-workers from AMRCO Steel.

I don't know exactly when my father traded woodworking for recipes, but I should have seen it coming: The kitchen is a place rife with opportunities to measure, experiment, test, and perfect. My first memories of him clad in an apron and hunched over the stove were during his years-long trials to concoct the ultimate version of his mother’s pasta sauce. He fixated on bay leaves, claiming they were the crucial ingredient that "no one else uses enough of." The result was a wonderfully fragrant (and verging on overpowering) Bolognese sauce that my sister and I loved. We begged him to make it every time our mom suggested a less-appealing dinner option.

The second object of his dedicated attention was barbecue, ribs specifically. These he took great pains to master, embarking on a prolonged search for the best barbecue sauce, which he finally located and had shipped to our house from Cincinnati, Ohio. Every year for the 4th of July we bore witness to his latest innovation: "Alright, three hours in the oven this time," he would announce, prompting praise from guests and offspring. My mom would smile as she prepped the rest of the buffet, adding soft tsks to communicate her disdain when the showmanship took the place of any quantifiable kitchen help.

Crème brûlée has become the final frontier: it's a real, classic French challenge for my father. (For my mother, it's an annoyingly complex recipe that overtakes the entire kitchen for hours.) I've watched him make it a dozen times now, listening to his tales of conquest, and I still don't know what his actual recipe is. But that’s never been the point: Watching my father make crème brûlée is more of an exercise in admiration—more about appreciating the result of a man's unyielding dedication to one dessert—than it is about eating it.

My father is not a man who ever found vegetables in the crisper drawer and threw them into a pan with an impulsive selection of seasonings. That was my mom’s kind of cooking, born of necessity; she didn't have the luxury of spending hours testing a recipe. Her work, more impactful on her children’s lives, was quotidian, and thus hidden. She threw together a thousand impromptu quiches, stir-frys, and salads, all lacking prestige in their frugality and economy. If intentionality and dedication mean mastery in the kitchen, then the use-what-you've-got ethos of my mom's daily meals have never qualified her for recognition.

"Now, the key to torching is uniformity," my dad says, as he saddles me with his blow torch and invites me to join him in the final stage of the crème brûlée process. I singe the fine layer of sugar that has settled on the custard's top, waiting for the brown cracks and bubbles to weld into a crust. He admires my handiwork and I offer my own technical specs on what I think is the best way to achieve that perfect, rusty brown hue.

The rest of the custard is packed up to take to my 97-year-old grandmother's house. That's what started this whole thing. Several years ago, after suffering a series of health issues, my grandmother lost her appetite, and my family began scheming ways to get her to eat more. My mom—knowing that my grandmother liked custard—was the one who first suggested crème brûlée, and dug out a recipe from a trusted cookbook. Sometime after her first batch, my dad took over, turning the task of hospice into a personal obsession. I think my grandmother was a bit perplexed by her grown son delivering delicate desserts to her on a weekly basis, but she ate them dutifully, and the family shared a collective sigh of relief. My mom can't help but remind us that it was all her idea. My sister and I laugh every time a good-natured fight breaks out over whose crème brûlée it truly is. I have taken to siding with my mom; I know that her smart remarks are about more than a familial rivalry. With every insistence that my dad has outdone himself in the kitchen, we miss the thousands of times she outdid herself quietly, under the much less glamorous pressures of daily life.

I grab another spoon and sit across from my dad to share one of the ramekins, freshly anointed with its sugar crown. Without even finishing the first bite, I exhale murmur of praise. We both nod slowly. The texture really is perfect. "It's amazing, dad," I say, "even though it was all mom's idea."

Crème Brûlée
Crème Brûlée

Crème Brûlée

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