Dispatches from Abroad: In Search of the Perfect Crème Brûlèe

As readers of this blog know, I do enjoy a good (or at least innovative or weird) meal. And foodies know that a good dessert can make or break the overall dining experience. In fact, I rarely order desserts – my waistline doesn’t need it, the options are rarely interesting, and eating anything with chocolate after about two in the afternoon inevitably keeps me up at night. But I do have a soft spot for crème brûlèes. Anytime I see one on a menu, I’ll order it. And then I’ll extol its virtues or decry its vices, either way driving my dinner companions deep into their digestifs.

One’s first interaction with a crème brûlèe is always the brûlèe – the topping of gently torched sugar that always reminds me of isinglass. Everyone has their own ideal brûlèe. Mine is one that is not too thick but breaks into bite-sizes shards with a single tap of the spoon. It should have just a hint of carbonization, but not be overburned. And it should dissolve on the tongue. Beneath the brûlèe is the custard. A traditional crème brûlèe has a vanilla custard that should be creamy, not grainy, and never a pudding. It is rare to find a simple vanilla crème brûlèe on a menu anymore. More commonly, dessert chefs are adding various accoutrements; I have had crème brûlèes with maple syrup, rum, cinnamon, ginger, and coconut. It is difficult to get any of these just right, as just the right touch is needed to maintain the integrity of the vanilla custard as it interacts with any of these additional ingredients. Finally, a crème brûlèe should never have a crust. It should be nestled in the confines of a small ramekin. The well-cooked custard should be just set and neither stick nor ooze away from the sides of the dish.

While continuing a heavy travel schedule in the last year, I started keeping track of the crème brûlèes I had around the world. This is the what I hope will be the first installment in occasional postings from my never-ending quest for the holy grail of desserts: the prefect crème brûlèe. And because good meals are only part of a broader contextual experience, some background is provided with each entry.

January 13, 2018

Flossie and I were in Burlington, Vermont for a few days while Nick Gotelli and I were working on our current book project. On a snowy and icy night (are there any other kinds in mid-winter in Vermont?), we three, along with Nick’s wife Maryanne, and our friends Aimée Classen and Nate Sanders met in nearby Richmond at the Kitchen Table Bistro. After an excellent and varied meal, I ordered their Cinnamon Stick Crème Brûlée with Sea Salted Shortbread Cookies.

kitchen-table-richmond-vt-cb-20180113_200621The brûlèe was slightly overburnt, but of reasonable thickness. The custard was very good with subtle cinnamon imparting a good flavor. Memorable more for the company than for the dessert itself.

January 19, 2018

Our comfort-food destination at home in Boston is the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square. We’ve learned through experience that the appetizers, and of course, the diversity of oysters on the menu, are far better than the main courses, and we usually fill up on the former and rarely have room for desserts. But on this visit, there was on the menu a Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée with Gingersnaps and Pear Sorbet.

island-creek-cb-boston-20180119_181152The perfect brûlèe overtopped a vanilla custard unadulterated by extraneous flavors. Rather than add ginger to the custard, this crème brûlèe was complemented with a small ginger candy, a gingerbread cookie, and just-right-sweet pear sorbet. This crème brûlèe was one of two for the year that approached perfection.

February 5, 2018

Just a few weeks later, Flossie and I had emptied the refrigerator prior to our (Chinese) New Year’s trip to Singapore, and so in search of dinner, we walked into La Voile, on Boston’s Newbury Street. I completed this otherwise excellent French Bistro meal with their Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée.

lavoile-vanilla-cb-20180205_192859Although the brûlèe was perfect, the custard tilted towards a disappointing pudding, and the strawberries were from far away. ‘Nuf said.

February 14, 2018

Ten days later, we were in Singapore for Chinese New Year. Singapore is justifiably famous for the high quality and diversity of its food, but it is rare that among all the different ethnic and fusion restaurants one gets classic “Singaporean” food. But on this evening, we went with my in-laws to Folklore, which serves traditional Singaporean dishes. Although I wasn’t expecting it to be a crème brûlèe, the Baked Custard with Gula Melaka (coconut-palm sugar) suggested it might be a southeast Asian close-equivalent.

folklore-singapore-cb-20180214_201810Indeed, this was more like a classic Latin American flan (coconut custard), albeit with a brûléed palm-sugar topping, than a crème brûlée. The brûlée was good, if a bit thick and unevenly torched. The coconut flakes were a nice touch, but they couldn’t save the grainy custard.

April 30, 2018

In April, I was in Melbourne, Australia, working with colleagues at the Independent Schools Victoria and presenting some workshops for schools on the intersection of art and science. Like Singapore, Melbourne is renowned for its innovative restaurants. One night, we went to Gazi Restaurant, a Hellenic-fusion restaurant in downtown Melbourne. After a delicious meal marred only by the seemingly 100-decibel volume of music and conversations in the restaurant, I ordered the Krema Kataifi (Crème Brûlée, Crispy Kataifi, Pistachia).

gazi-melbourne-cb-20180430_201337Like the rest of the items on menu, this Krema Kataifi was a fusion of styles and flavors. The classic crème brûlée custard – here nothing but a basic vanilla pudding – was topped with an Arabic-Turkish-Hellenic bird’s nest pastry (kataifi), raspberries, mint leaves, and flower petals. There was no opportunity to brûlée the topping, which would have left just a residue of charred kataifi. Overall, this was much more enjoyable to look at than to eat.

July 3, 2018

Back home for the summer, we found ourselves at a dinner party at Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge, wrapping up this summer’s session of Leading Learning that Matters with Independent Schools Victoria. Harvest is well-known and praised for its creative uses of local ingredients in delectable dishes. For dessert, I had the Choux à la Crème Brûlée (Pistachio, Vanilla Bean Mousseline, Elderflower & Apricot Sorbet).

harvest-boston-cb-20180703_182544This was another attempt at fusion of styles, which rarely is successful with a crème brûlèe. And unfortunately, this was no exception. The brûlèe was overburnt and too thick to break easily. The custard was pudding-like and grainy (not as hoped with the promised mousseline), but not too sweet. The unexpected (only because I had missed the “Choux” in the dessert’s title) pastry shell was tasty but rubbery. This desert was saved by the sorbet.

September 28, 2018

nan thai atlanta thai tea creme brulee 20180928_190208In September, Flossie and I went to Atlanta, where we visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden and had a behind-the-scenes tour of the greenhouses and the carnivorous plant collection. I gave a talk about carnivorous plants and the large book I’ve edited on them (Carnivorous Plants: Physiology, Ecology, and Evolution). On our last night in Atlanta, we went to a justifiably highly-rated Thai restaurant, Nan Fine Dining. This restaurant, a bit outside the main downtown area, surprised us with its innovative Thai dishes. None was more surprising than seeing a Thai Tea Crème Brûlée on the dessert menu.

Of all the year’s crème brûlèes, this one was my hands-down favorite in terms of its presentation. It came in a long, thin ramekin reminiscent of an áo dài. Although the brûlèe was very fine, the Thai tea custard was less than perfect and a little grainy. And while I prefer my custard less sweet, this one actually could have been sweeter. The flower of whipped cream was a very nice touch.

 

 

November 17, 2018

This mid-November weekend found me shuttling between New Haven, Connecticut, where I gave the keynote talk at this year’s final event week of the World Scholar’s Cup, and the ginormous temple to excess consumption that is the Woodbury Common premium outlets mall, where Flossie, my in-laws, my parents, and sister, brother-in-law, and niece were engaging in America’s favorite past-time (no, not baseball, the other one). After a long day talking and driving (for me) and shopping (for them), we had an outstanding Italian dinner at La Vera Cucina, in nearby Monroe, NY.

la vera cucina-monroe-ny-cb-20181117_191605Their no-frills, home-cooked crème brûlée was well above-average. The brûlèe was excellent and just the right thickness. The custard was very creamy and not at all grainy, marred only by being just a little too sweet for my taste.

December 17, 2018

December found us in the UK for the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society in Birmingham. Although Birmingham doesn’t have the foodie reputation of the larger city to its southeast (that would be London, for the geographically impaired), we did find a number of excellent restaurants. For one of my birthday dinners we went to Opus, where we had an incredibly innovative meal topped off with their Rum and Cinnamon Crème Brûlée.

rum-creme-brulee-opus-20181217-ame-212820This birthday crème brûlée was the only other one of the year to come close to perfection. The brûlée was just a little thick but was just the right degree of carmelized. The custard was creamy and excellent, the rum and cinnamon combined in smoothly, and their flavors complemented the vanilla without overpowering it.

January 19, 2019

A year and five continents after I started this crème brûlée odyssey, I spent a weekend in Santiago after a week working with my colleague Ronny Vallejos on spatial statistics at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in one of my favorite cities in the world, beautiful Valparaíso, Chile. Just a short distance from my hotel, I found Le Bistrot Việt. After an outstanding vegan stir-fry and a pot of fresh green tea, I indulged in their Crème Brûlée avec lait de coco et fruit de saison.

bistro viet santiago cb 20190119_132451_resizedThis surprising crème brûlée was really a classic coconut custard (flan) that had been gently brûléed on top. Dressed up with fresh strawberries and mint, passionfruit and raspberry emulsions, and dollops of whipped cream, it was delightful to look at and had just the right degree of sweetness. It got a happy face in my notes, and I left the meal, and my 12 months of searching for the perfect crème brûlée, pleasantly sated.

The quest continues…

the unBalanced ecoLOGist: Still Blogging for Others

I guess it’s a good sign that I’m writing for other blogs and outlets for nontechnical writing. Here are some new pieces:

Today on the Methods.blog, the Official Blog of Methods in Ecology and Evolution, I talk about my new role as one of the team of Senior Editors for the journal.

Last week, two of my essays were published back-to-back in the April 2018 issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America (and yes, that is a photograph of mine from my December trip to Antarctica on the cover):

Cover_Scale

  1. A sense of scale (solo effort)
  2. Art/science collaborations: new explorations of ecological systems, values, and their feedbacks (a team effort with Carri LeRoy, Kim Landsbergen, Emily Bosanquet, David Buckley Borden, Paul CaraDonna, Katherine Cheney, Robert Crystal-Ornelas, Ardis DeFreece, Lissy Goralnik, Ellie Irons, Bethann Garramon Merkle, Kari O’Connell, Clint Penick, Lindsey Rustad, Mark Schulze, Nickolas Waser, and Linda Wysong)

I’ve also published three book reviews in the last 16 months, and have four more in the works, including one for Quarterly Review of Biology, two for Biotropica, and one for Myrmecological News.

More soon, so stay tuned!

The unBalanced ecoLogist: Blogging for Others

Well, it’s been three-and-a-half months since I last managed to post here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been blogging. It’s just that those posts have appeared elsewhere.

So while you’re waiting for me to fulfill my Chinese New Year’s resolution (which, fortunately, was only resolved 3 weeks ago), check out these recent posts:

On OUPblog

  1. The ‘most wonderful plants in the world’ are also some of the most useful ones (February 21, 2018)

On The Revelator:

  1. Don’t believe the hype: giant pandas are still endangered (January 11, 2018)
  2.  Climate: riding the chaotic wave (August 28, 2017)
  3. 5/9: the day we passed the climate tipping point (August 14, 2017)

On The Hill

  1. Pesticides, Pruitt and a plea for biodiversity (June 15, 2017)

And if you want to see what else I’ve been up to while I’ve been stateside (in the last three months, I’ve been to Antarctica, New Mexico, Singapore for Chinese New Year, and Germany), check these out:

  1. Hemlock Hospice lecture tour, press coverage (ongoing since October 7, 2017), and a fabulous podcast for The Native Plant Podcast (February 20, 2018)
  2. New sculpture created for the Shifting Sites group exhibition in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design (March 5-19, 2018)
  3. New book published: Carnivorous Plants: Physiology, Ecology, and Evolution by Oxford University Press (January 21, 2018 in Europe; February 21, 2018 in USA)
  4. Paper on reproducibility in ecological research published in Nature Ecology and Evolution (January 16, 2018)

Meanwhile, it’s still winter here in Massachusetts, so I need to shovel out!

Red Oak
A magnificent red oak, Royalston, Massachusetts

The unBalanced ecoLOGist: Hemlock Hospice [III]

Since my last post on our Hemlock Hospice installation and exhibition, we had a very successful opening event (October 7) that brought more than 150 people to Harvard Forest, many of who had never been here before; the 18+ outdoor sculptures have successfull weathered torrential rains, howling winds, and the season’s first three snowfalls; and, in the past 6 weeks, over 400 more visitors have signed into the log book, leaving comments there and on ribbons tied to the Exchange Tree.

HemlockHospice-October2017--20171017-AME-3192
“Exchange Tree” Installation at Harvard Forest, 8×10×12.5 feet, wood and acrylic paing, 2017. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Aaron M. Ellison, Salvador Jiménez-Flores, and Salua Rivero. Photograph © 2017 Aaron M. Ellison

Lead artist and designer David Buckley Borden and I have given many tours of the exhibition to groups both large and small, and to visiting journalists who have written or are writing pieces about it for a range of audiences. All of these individuals have asked interesting and provocative questions that have spurred us to continue to think ever more deeply about the pieces and their broader meaning and context.

In this essay, I reflect on “invasive species”, how we conceptualize and contextualize them, and how we relate to them. My focus here is on the hemlock woolly adelgid (“HWA”), which is the non-native insect that is killing eastern hemlock throughout the range of this magnificent, late successional tree, but the ideas are, I hope, applicable to other invasive species.

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: Hemlock Hospice [II]

Hemlock Hospice opens to the public on October 7, 2017 at noon, and will be up for more than a year (through November 18, 2018). We have a website, a schedule of events for the opening reception, and are putting the finishing touches on the last of more than a dozen sculptural pieces emplaced thoughtfully throughout a new interpretive trail within the Prospect Hill Tract at the Harvard Forest. A substantial outreach effort is leading to press coverage, interviews, seminar invitations, etc., especially in the art world. Scientists, though, generally are a bit more muted in their response or apparent interest. Why might that be?

In pursuit of an answer, I explore here the importance of empathy in field research.

empathy, n. “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, June 2017. Accessed 10 September 2017

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: Hemlock Hospice [I]

Hemlock 023. Tony D'Amato in a Berkshire Old-growth Forest (color)
Figure 1 – University of Vermont professor of silviculture Anthony D’Amato with a 300+ year-old hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) tree in the old-growth forest on Mount Everett in western Massachusetts. Photo by David A. Orwig and copyright © Harvard Forest Archives, Harvard University

Throughout the eastern United States, one of our most iconic forest trees is dying. Eastern hemlock (a.k.a. Tsuga canadensis; Figure 1) is being sucked to death by a small insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid (a.k.a. Adelges tsugae). As a scientist, I study how our forests may respond to the loss of this “foundation” tree species.[i] As a human being, I cry, I mourn, and I look to the future for hope.

To reconcile the desire for knowledge and the emotional tearing that affects many of us who study eastern hemlock and all of us who are living with these fading trees,[ii] I have partnered with two artists—David Buckley Borden and Salua Rivero—to develop Hemlock Hospice: a collaborative, field-based installation that blends science, art, and design that [1] respects eastern hemlock and its ecological role as a foundation forest species; [2] promotes an understanding of the adelgid; and [3] encourages empathetic conversations among all the sustainers of and caregivers for our forests—ecologists and artists, foresters and journalists, naturalists and citizens—while fostering social cohesion around ecological issues.

Starting today, and over the next several weeks, we’ll be installing Hemlock Hospice in and around the oldest stand of eastern hemlocks in the Prospect Hill Tract at Harvard Forest, and I’m using this space to keep track of its background and progress. I’ll also be presenting an overview of Hemlock Hospice in a five-minute “ignite” talk at the Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland Oregon, August 6-11, 2017.[iii]

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Blogging

I live in a small, rural town (population ≈1200) in north-central Massachusetts, so when our librarian asked me if I’d do a program at the library on blogging, I happily signed on to help fill in the calendar. With tomorrow fast approaching, I thought it would be useful to set down some notes in, naturally, a blog. And besides, what better way is there to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon than on the writing of a self-referential blog entry? Sure beats trying to keep up with Twitter or cleaning up the workshop!

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Editing

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve written a post. I could plead some normal excuses: just back from a sabbatical and nearly 18 months mostly overseas and returning to an avalanche of house cleaning and office work; getting married two weeks after stepping off the 12th plane flight in seven weeks; or that old stand-by, writer’s block. But really, none of them apply.

In fact, I’ve been preoccupied with meeting a contractual end-of-May deadline to deliver a 29-chapter edited volume—Carnivorous Plants: Physiology, Ecology, and Evolution—to Oxford University Press. I’ve cross-checked tens of thousands of in-text citations against nearly 1700 references in the combined bibliography. Wanting to avoid future litigation and unfavorable court judgments, I’ve made sure that the Oxford comma is used uniformly throughout the book. I’ve made sure all 111 figures are either 600 dpi tiff files at 50% of a B-4 page or vectorized eps files that scale well to any page size; that final versions of chapters by authors from around the world are all laid out on U.S. letter-sized paper (which is absolutely not the same as A-4) with equivalent margins and tabs (note to self: 1.27-cm tabs translate in Word to 0.49″, not 0.5″, tabs, and yes, my eye can tell the difference); that the proofing language of every file is set to English, not Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hebrew, German, Spanish, Portuguese, or Australian; and innumerable other details clearly explained in the OUP style sheet and in detailed letters from me and my co-editor that most chapter authors cheerfully, unknowingly, or willfully ignored.

All that after indeed just returning from a sabbatical that took me, over the course of nearly 18 months, to every continent except Antarctica, to dozens of interesting labs and field stations around the world, to new collaborations with friends and colleagues and new friends, and, at the end of it all, to a wedding in Brookline. But those are all other stories for other times (explore this site for all but the last).

Editing a book (my second; the first, Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research, co-edited with Ayelet Shavit, was published last week by Yale University Press) is very different from editing for a journal (which I’ve also done for nearly 20 years, as a handling editor for American Journal of Botany [1995-2004], Ecology [2002-2015], Ecology Letters [2005-2008], and PeerJ [since 2012]) or editing and running the journal itself (which I’ve done twice, first as the founding editor of Ecological Archives [1998-2001], and second, as the editor-in-chief of Ecological Monographs [2009-2015]).

So I thought I’d jot down seven lessons I’ve learned from editing a couple of scientific / technical books that might be useful to others who are (or are considering) editing such a book and to remind me, if I’m ever asked to edit another one, that saying no might be the best response.

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist. Guest blog: An LTER for Sudan?

This week The unBalanced ecoLOGist features its first guest blog.[1] Written by Ahmed Siddig[2]  and edited only lightly for posting, it re-caps themes of the short-course on the science of biodiversity that Ahmed and I taught in Khartoum, Sudan, earlier this month and sketches a proposal for establishing a long-term ecological research (LTER) program in Sudan.[3]

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: Hope and Promise in Khartoum (Use R!)

I just wrapped up an 11-day visit to Khartoum, Sudan, where I co-taught, with my colleague Ahmed Siddig, a six-day intensive short course intended to cover designing reliable biodiversity monitoring studies, basic analysis of the resulting data, and the fundamentals of the R programming language. With approximately six hours available each of the six days (nearly equivalent to the amount of lecture time in an average semester-long course), our initial syllabus included: introductory lectures on data needs about biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa; using biodiversity data to inform environmental policies; sampling design; a morning field exercise to collect biodiversity data on the Shambat campus of the University of Khartoum, in and around the grounds of the Faculty (i.e., Department) of Forestry; a discussion of best practices for data management; basic R (interface, syntax, data entry, manipulations, and exploratory data analysis); and using R for standard ecological statistics applied to biodiversity data (rarefaction and extrapolation, occupancy and detection probability, ordination and classification, and hypothesis testing using regression and analysis of variance). There were also a few skills-building lectures tucked in after hours: success in research and teaching; science communication; and open discussion of how to apply for overseas opportunities.

This seemed like a reasonable schedule and a reasonable goal for a workshop attended by an expected 20 or so M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, junior and senior faculty, and established forestry and wildlife researchers at government agencies. Files would be shared using Dropbox and we would be building scientific capacity among the current generation of young Sudanese researchers and conservationists. Success was assured.

And then our expectations met reality.

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