It was my husband’s birthday last Saturday. As a treat, we decided to stay at Cowley Manor – ‘the perfect place for a luxury getaway in the Cotswolds’.
Our aim was to have a relaxing couple of days away from home and the sadness which had pervaded our house since we lost Montague, our much loved dog. In the main, we achieved our objective.
We were treated to a lovely dinner at the restaurant on Friday night, courtesy of my mother. On Saturday, after a relaxing breakfast of bircher muesli and fruit, followed by scrambled eggs and salmon/chilli avocado on toast, we went for a 6 mile run. After a quick dip in the pool and hungry again after our exercise we sat down to a delicious lunch of artichoke, sweetcorn, mushroom, sun blushed tomato and mozzarella pizza, served in the bar area. If that wasn’t enough indulgence, we then both had a half an hour neck, shoulder and back massage. Note to self, never ask for a firm massage as my encounter with the masseuse was not a relaxing one. I was pummelled with an elbow for almost half an hour, but my pride (or stupidity) would not allow me to admit that I should have requested a medium massage. Whereas Jo emerged quite relaxed from his experience, I emerged grateful that my back was still in one piece. As they say, you live and learn.
Stopping en route at Waitrose to pick up a few bits and pieces, it was back to reality again when we got home. One part of my reality was that it was still Jo’s birthday. The other part of my reality was that I had to complete week 4 of my challenge. As a dutiful wife, I thought that if I was going to do my challenge I should do it on Jo’s birthday so that he had a good dessert to finish off the day. After some discussion with Jo, we settled on a creme brulee tartlet from BBC Good Food (surprise, surprise).
My bake was going to plan. The first step was to make the pastry. A straightforward pastry (flour, cold butter, a sprinkling of sugar and egg yolk) with a hint of orange from the zest of half an orange, chilled and blind-baked in tartlet cases prior to adding the filling. As with the pastry, the filling was also straightforward to make. Heated cream infused with vanilla (I used a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste instead of a vanilla pod as stated in the recipe) was added to eggs and sugar to make a custard. After straining the custard through a sieve to remove any lumps, the mixture was poured into the blind-baked pastry tarts and cooked for 18/22 minutes until almost set. The tarts were then required to be cooled for 30 minutes before adding the caramel topping. The next step was to make the caramel topping – a mixture of water and sugar cooked out on the hob until a deep caramel colour and then cooled on a lightly oiled baking tray until hard. Once hard, the caramel was blended to a fine powder, which was later to be sprinkled on the cooled tarts before placing them under the grill to create the required caramel topping for the creme brulee tartlets.
It was at this point that things started to unravel a bit. You see, having made all the component parts (pastry, filling and topping), I relaxed with a glass of wine on the sofa and dozed off. I was woken up by my husband when the timer went off to advise me that the tartlets were cool enough to top with the caramel. Rudely awoken from my slumber, I set about finishing off my tartlets. I went to sprinkle the blended caramel on top of my cooled tartlets, and realise I had made my first mistake. Having made and blended the caramel earlier, I had left it in the blender rather than an airtight container and as such my beautiful caramel powder had started to clump together (as you know sugar is hygroscopic so will absorb water in the atmosphere). This made sprinkling an even layer of fine caramel powder on each of the tartlets a little difficult. Protecting the pastry of the tartlets from the heat of the grill (I had to cover the edges of the tartlets with foil) was also a little tricky. To cut an already long story short, rather than having an even, glossy layer of caramel on top of my tartlets, the caramel topping was uneven (both in appearance and cooking). Even an attempt at dusting the tartlets with a sprinkling of icing sugar (to disguise the flaws) only made it look like the dusting of caramel had not melted in places.
Despite the end product being less than perfect, I have to say that the pastry and the custard filling were absolutely delicious. The caramel topping even had the required crack, even though it didn’t look as delectable as it should have. The morale of this story is three-fold: (1) it is best to leave drinking alcohol until after the challenge is finished; (2) it is best not to fall asleep (because you have been drinking alcohol) during a challenge and (3) when attempting caramel items, ensure that they are stored correctly in an airtight container to prevent them from absorbing moisture.