Tap, tap. Crystalline caramel crunch collapses into a custard bath made bitter and sweet with orange peel, or Jasmine tea—or whatever Mina has decided to add that week.
Every Tuesday, for ten years running, Mina wakes up and wonders, what flavor is on the tip of my tongue: anise, Guinness, raspberry, coffee, pomegranate, ginger, lemon grass—or white pepper? By four in the afternoon, while the sous-chef preps, Mina performs her taste test in the restaurant kitchen. The dessert with the translucent moon of burnt sugar, egg custard, and secret ingredient needs to ping on her tongue from first mouthful to last—and it usually does. Minnesota Monthly gave Mina’s crème brulee their “Most Exciting Dessert” award nine years in a row.
But this Tuesday morning, for the first time since the restaurant opened, Mina woke up without a flavor for the week.
Mina walks through her empty, dark restaurant, into her bright kitchen, where Eddie is unloading baguettes from the wood-burning oven. Most days, the bread’s wild yeast scent makes her hungry. Today her mouth is dry. She gives Eddie a quick compliment about his “well-hung loaves” and hurries to her tiny office. She calls Chad.
“Just try to relax, Min. Get someone else to help for a change.”
“Fuck you. You’re the one who keeps reminding me to keep my revenues up in these shitty economic times.” Chad is the king of mixed messages. This is why she divorced him.
“I’m just thinking about your health. What did the doctor say?”
She recounts how the skinny endocrinologist—who looked like she’d swallowed her own cheeks—called Mina a border-line diabetic and told her to change her diet right away.
“She’s right, all you eat is dessert.”
Mina reminds her ex-husband that he is her accountant not her dietician. She does not remind him that while they were living together, he preferred eating her crème brulee—and counting the day’s cash from the restaurant—to having sex.
Suddenly hot, Mina unzips her too-tight parka and wrestles it off.
“I told her sweets were my business.” It’s true. The success of Mina’s restaurant, Crème Brulee, hinges on her intimate relationship with the dessert. “She told me if I didn’t stop eating them, I’d go blind and my heart would stop.” Mina describes the ridiculous food list the endocrinologist gave her to keep her off insulin shots: eight glasses of water per day, five vegetables, three fruits, “and plenty of whole grain starches,” Mina says, mimicking the doctor’s nasal voice.
“ You’ve got to start taking care of yourself. Whole grains are good for you.”
Good for her. Like the whole grains foisted on Mina in the trailer kitchen of her childhood: her mother’s quarter-pounder bran muffins; millet and soy paste “’cause they’re good for ya” stews; end of the paycheck oatmeal dinners. Whole grains were no help at all when health-nut mom got ovarian cancer and died at forty-eight. Mina, forty-nine and living well on crème brulee, is cancer free.
“I’m just trying to be your friend,” says Chad, her loyal—but tiresome—only friend.
Mina excuses herself from the conversation. Time to face her kitchen—and her task. She imagines crème brulee with broccoli, grabs fistfuls of her short gray hair, and groans.
Eddie has left for the day. Mina has her kitchen to herself. Full spectrum lights that mimic the sun spot the room’s every surface: the two ovens, Baker’s Pride convection and wood burning brick; the stovetop burners; metal countertops, cutting boards, dish racks, jumbo electric mixers, plastic barrels of flour and sugar, bundt pans, cookie sheets, the mold for the giant crème brulee auctioned off every year to raise money for the emergency food network, the shelf for her recipe books.
She sets everything out for her daily batch: four dozen free-range eggs, four gallons of organic cream, the raw sugar, the twenty-four gold porcelain cups in which each twenty dollar crème brulee is served. She lights the oven.
Mina walks to her bookshelf and removes the Escoffier cookbook. Its blue cloth cover is frayed, the pages stick together, and one side of the binding has come unglued. She found it at a used bookstore for fifty cents when she was an apprentice at the Franklin Street Bakery. Inside is a recipe for crème brulee—her first—flavored with vanilla bean. She had followed the instructions exactly, scraping the vanilla from its skin, simmering cream, separating yolks, whisking in sugar then baking the dessert. She used a Bic lighter to burn the sugar coating on top. Tap, tap; she dipped her spoon into crackle and cream as if she were breaking ice or digging for a sweeter world. That first taste made her whole body vibrate. She pleaded with her boss to add crème brulee to the bakery’s offerings, with her in charge. When he agreed, she vowed to sample every batch of crème brulee she made. Mina’s care made her dessert so popular that a rich neighbor gave her capital to her open up a restaurant. “Mina Katz’s crème brulee flavor of the week keeps her many customers beating down the door of her ten-year old restaurant,” wrote the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last June.
Mina’s throat is dry. She finds the recipe and rips it from the book. Her hands shake as she brings the page over to the steel counter where her ingredients sit. Her shaky hands rip the page into a mound of words. Words like “Heat.” “Scrape.” “Simmer.” “Whisk.” “Stir.” “Bake.” “Caramelize.” Words that have defined her life for twenty years drift like falling leaves into one of the gold porcelain crème brulee cups. She leans against the cold refrigerator with a spoon, the cup of dry, bitter words, and eats.