Crème brûlée

By popular request, here is the recipe that I use for producing delicious home-made crème brûlée, lifted wholesale from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. Seriously, if you haven’t already got this book on your kitchen shelf, you need to get it. Now. It totally encompasses my approach to the kitchen – big flavours, big foods, big cookery, big swearing and big drinking – and is the most-used cookbook on our shelf. This dish, by the way, scores 10 on the impress-your-guests scale, as do many in the book. Most of the recipes are easy or require only moderate skills, but quite a few of them require a fair bit of time.

Amazon link: Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles” Cookbook: Classic Bistro Cooking


  • 900ml double cream (we’re not calorie counting here, ok?)
  • 1 vanilla pod, whole (no vanilla essence, or else you’ll be shot)
  • 170g granulated sugar
  • 10 egg yolks
  • 85g brown sugar

You will also need 6 or 8 ramekins, a big deep baking pan (or some other ovenproof dish that is at least an inch deep – you’re going to make a bain-marie) and a propane torch. You’ll need an electric whisk, large mixing bowl, sharp knife and a saucepan. Pre-heat your oven to 150 Celsius/300F/gas mark a-bit-less-than-half-way.

First, put the cream into a large saucepan on the hob. Split the vanilla pod along its length using a very sharp knife. Scrape the insides of the pod into the cream and then dump the pod itself in as well. Add half the granulated sugar to the cream, stir thoroughly and bring the mixture to a gentle boil.

Whilst your mixture comes to the boil, place the egg yolks into a large mixing bowl and whisk in the remaining granulated sugar. Keep whisking until the mixture is pale yellow and slightly foamy.

Fish the vanilla pod out of the cream and throw the pod away. Remove the cream mixture from the heat and slowly, gradually whisk it into the yolk mixture. You must do it slowly and whisk constantly, otherwise the mixture will curdle.

Place the ramekins in the baking pan and fill the pan with cold water so that it comes half way up the sides of the ramekins. Divide the custard mixture evenly between the ramekins.

Bake in the oven for around 45 minutes (I sometimes find it takes a little longer – depends on your oven), until the top is set but still “jiggly”.

Remove the whole thing from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature (take the ramekins out of the bain-marie as soon as they are cool enough to handle). You can store them easily at this stage – I’ve found that, once cooled and covered in cling film, they keep in the fridge for a couple of days. If you are planning a dinner party, be canny and do everything up to this stage the day before.

Sprinkle a generous tablespoon of brown sugar over the top of each custard. Carefully run the propane torch flame over the top of each one, just enough to caramelize the sugar (I like to leave a little sugar un-torched around the edge). Allow to sit for a moment so that the sugar sets into a crunchy shell coating across the top and then serve to applause and hooplas from your guests.

Now, what do you do with ten egg whites?

Wallpaper* 100

Happy 100th issue to Wallpaper* magazine! The new issue flopped onto our doormat this morning and, once read, will be added to the not-quite-like-the-picture-on-the-cover-because-they-are-mostly-in-boxes-in-the-attic pile of back issues that I possess. My collection is sadly incomplete – I’ve every issue from number 9 onwards (including all the recent limited-edition-cover issues) and just about anyone could become my friend (at least until next week) if they were to assist me in obtaining issues 1 to 8 (and it’s my birthday on Saturday, so it would make a great present. Of course, if you’re struggling for present ideas, then there is always my very handy Amazon wishlist, which can be found by going here. Alternatively, just send beer. And cash.).

Halfway through a book review

Avid readers of this site who have an eye for detail will have noticed that my "current reading" has been the same book for really rather a long time now. For once, this isn’t the result of laziness on my part in updating the sidebar, but is in fact due to the fact that I’m still ploughing my way through the book.

The book in question is Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky. You may recall that it was described as "devastating" by Tim Adams of the Observer on the back cover.

Now, I am able to present before the court several reasons why I’ve been chewing my way through this book at such a slow pace, having only reached page 150 of 237. Firstly, I started reading it in the days before we moved house, so time for reading was at something of a premium. Secondly, we have had Christmas and new kittens, both of which have provided distractions from the task at hand. And, thirdly, I took some time out to read Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem, which I got through in about three days, and found to be excellent.

But there are other reasons why I have taken so long to read Hegemony or Survival. Firstly, Chomsky’s presentation is, at best, an irritation. He has a tendency to place "quotations" liberally through each and every sentence, "not all of which" are accompanied by citations or references. At best, this makes the text "difficult to read" and "uneasy on the eye", breaking the flow of text across the line far too frequently to make the act of reading a pleasure. In fact, it is such a hindrance that it even gets in the way of "understanding" of the author’s meaning and intent, preventing a full and complete "assimilation" of the "facts" being presented to the reader.
(OK, I’ll stop now – I’m getting bored with typing all the "s. I think you get my point.)

Secondly, the quotations themselves are often so far removed from their context as to be meaningless to the reader. The quotation of one or two words from a source does not convey the meaning that was contained within the original source document or speech. Let me demonstrate – if I quote "Democrats […] won’t change anything" to you, you’d think that I was saying that the Democrats were pretty much useless in every respect. However, if you read the entire paragraph (in this previous post on grayblog), you’d see that the intended meaning was quite different. I’m not sure whether this is part of Chomsky’s writing style, or was something forced upon him by editors and publishers keen to produce a lightweight volume small enough to appeal to the average reader of paperbacks and not limited to more academic circles. Either way, it is a practice that undermines the validity of Chomsky’s arguments.

Thirdly, even when offering a lengthier quotation, Chomsky has a tendency to either omit or provide incomplete references and citations for his sources. As an example, this is from Chapter 6 – I read it this morning, and it irritated me no end:

The minister of state at the Foreign Office commented to his cabinet colleagues that Americans believe "that the United States stands for something in the world – something of which the world has need, something which the world is going to like, something, in the final analysis, which the world is going to take, whether it likes it or not."

(I could start on the fact that "Minister of State" and "Cabinet" should both be capitalized, but I’ll let it go.) A reference to the notes at the back of the book is offered, which provides the following reference:

Christopher Thorne, The Issue of War (Oxford, 1985), pp. 225, 211. For sources and general context, see my Deterring Democracy.

That is either laziness or the result of excessive pressure from an overzealous editor. Somehow I feel that the former is more likely than the latter. Either way, we have no idea which Minister of State made this statement, when, and in the context of what events. The quotation is rendered meaningless and does not support Chomsky’s argument.

And, fourthly, Chomsky’s tendency to take the discussion off at a tangent does not lend any weight to his arguments. To suddenly start talking about the American wars against the Native Americans when in the middle of a lengthy section on post-war US policy in Central America, particularly Nicaragua, seems odd at best. But then I was warned about that, as well as Chomsky’s habit of bending chronology to suit his argument (perhaps evidenced by my third point above, although we’ll probably never know), by Francis Wheen. And he often goes in circles and becomes self-contradictory too, but let’s not completely pull the man to pieces.

Strangely, though, I’m determined to see this book through to the end. I’m not convinced by a lot of Chomsky’s arguments, particularly when he tries to go beyond stating the obvious. He seems to attach an unreasonable amount of malicious aforethought to the political classes which, judging by the very few members of that class that I have met, they are rarely capable of (most not being capable of much thought at all). He also finds it unreasonable that politicians are motivated by senses of self-preservation or self-interest when the results of those motives conflict with his own ideas, yet applauds those same motives when the outcomes accord with his thoughts (e.g. Gerhard Schroeder refusing to support the Second Gulf War, which is not in any way surprising when he was so close to a general election; or the Turks not allowing US forces to use bases in their country when they have a large Kurdish community (oppressed or otherwise) who might use the opportunity to attempt to secede and form a Kurdish state with their Iraqi cousins).

But in spite of that, I want to explore his ideas and see if his book reaches some towering conclusion about the state of post-war US foreign policy. If I’m pleasantly (or otherwise) surprised, I’ll report back.

Graybo’s Review Of Books

I promised to let you know how I got on with the books I’m reading at the moment, and whether or not they lived up to their one-word reviews on the cover. The first that I tackled was How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World by Francis Wheen, which was rated as "Hilarious" by Jeremy Paxman.

I’m not sure I agree with Paxo.

Now, please don’t get me wrong – this is a very good and thought-provoking book. It is, in essence, an appeal for rationality in an irrational world. He challenges not only thinkers and opinion formers (ranging from the likes of Noam Chomsky and Al Gore on one hand, through to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on the other, and not forgetting a good swipe at the Bible and the Koran on the way through) but also the likes of you and I to use a more rational approach to our appraisal of the world and our own situation. Definitely recommended and well worth reading, but only likely to raise an odd "goodness! how ironic!" chortle every now and then rather than anything that could be described as hilarity.

The one bit that is hilarious, however, is the index. Let me give you a few quotes:

Blair, Tony, 215, 225, 272;

  • claims descent from Abraham, 165;
  • defends secondary picketing, 216;
  • defends teaching of creationism, 7, 113-15;
  • displays coat-hangers, 224;
  • emotional guy, 205, 207, 210, 212;
  • explores Third Way, 226;
  • likes chocolate-cake recipe, 51;

Lacan, Jacques, 79, 91-2;

  • mistakes his penis for a square root, 88-9;

Peters, Tom, 234;

  • discovers secret of success, 41;
  • flails and sweats, 50-1;
  • discovers secret of failure, 62;
  • thrives on chaos, 63;

and, most brilliantly,


  • accepted by Newton, 4;
  • angered by feminists and gays, 183;
  • appoints American coal-owners, 25;
  • approves of laissez-faire economics, 27;
  • arrives in America, 158;
  • asked by Khomeini to cut off foreigners’ hands, ix;
  • believed to have created humans 10,000 years ago, 103;
  • could have made intelligent sponges, 109;
  • doesn’t foresee Princess Diana’s death, 154;
  • helps vacuum-cleaner saleswoman, 45;
  • interested in diets, 95;
  • offers investment advice, 48;
  • praised by Enron chairman, 277;
  • produces first self-help manual, 53;

Brilliant. And you can quote me on that.

Next up: Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival which, in light of Wheen’s comments, should make interesting reading. (In fact, I’ve only got to page 8 and have already found evidence to support Wheen’s point of view).

Splashing cash

Having just received a letter from Chichester District Council telling me that they owe me a council tax rebate of nearly £200, I thought I’d treat my gorgeous wife to a light lunch in order to cheer her up, then would explore the bookshop for some new reading matter. Purchased in a 3 for 2 deal:
Francis Wheen – How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World. "Hilarious" says Jeremy Paxman!
Tobias Jones – The Dark Heart Of Italy. "Excellent" says Andrew Marr!
Noam Chomsky – Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. "Devastating" says Tim Adams!
I’ll try to report back on the levels of hilarity, excellence and devastation in each case. And I really must update that current reading, current listening and current mood thing in the sidebar, as it’s not-at-all current.

UPDATE: sidebar updated.