Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sweet and Salty

In Evanston, just south of Northwestern's campus is a historic building. Students go there often, grateful that its doors are always open. When the town is shrouded in darkness it lets off a beacon of light, of hope. Despite the ups and downs of the economy and the many businesses that have departed the downtown, this place has continued to survive. I can only be talking about Burger King.

In college, I refused to go to Burger King for a proper meal. I never ate the burgers. I only ever went there late at night, when all the good restaurants and coffee shops around downtown Evanston were closed. It was a common hangout after a party or drunken dorm room binge. But often it was just something to do for a college student who didn't sleep before 3am, who was bored of ordering Papa John's pizza and cheese sticks with garlic sauce, who had exhausted the dorm's movie collection, who didn't have a boyfriend or a pre-med major.

How can I write about Burger King in a cooking blog? Isn't that like sacrilege? I only bring up Burger King because I have a memory lodged in my taste buds of salty greasy fries eaten alongside a thick vanilla milkshake. Even at age 18 I had a sophisticated palate and could recognize that combining sweet and salty flavors was satisfying.

I've since graduated from french fries and milkshakes, and had my flirtations with pretzels dipped in chocolate, canteloupe topped with feta, and caramelized walnuts. I put honey on steamed brussel sprouts and sauteed zucchini. For breakfast I can never decide whether I should have the waffles or the eggs benedict, and end up with pancakes and a side of sausage, or an omelet with a scone to start. Seeking snacks on a dreary Sunday afternoon, I bounce back and forth between cheese and crackers then scoops of Nutella. A little bite of salty, a little taste of sweet, and back again. It's like reading a book that makes you laugh and cry, like teasing the person you love the most, like listening to Prince followed by a little Norah Jones.

Lately I've been obsessed with caramel ice cream. It could be because Top Chef contestants were always making salted caramel sauce, or because I "shared" a delicious dessert of profiteroles with caramel ice cream and chocolate sauce at Enoteca Roma where I ate far more than my share. Having tried the burnt caramel ice cream recipe last week, I decided to try a regular caramel ice cream recipe and revel in the salty-sweet combination.

This recipe combines sugar melted and browned with cream, milk, egg yolks and corn syrup. Once it's been strained and frozen, the ice cream is topped with a sprinkle of sea salt (which has a slightly less harsh, less chemical flavor than regular salt). From the picture, you may detect a certain inconsistency in the consistency of my ice cream. Yes, unfortunately my version did not freeze and rather resembles a custard...or a soup. I don't know what went wrong, though I speculate that the sugar to dairy ratio was too high. But no matter. Make yourself some caramel sauce, then sprinkle on some sea salt or kosher salt. Eat it by itself, eat it with ice cream that actually freezes, eat it with a dark chocolate cake. Have a little sweet, a little salty, a sip of milkshake, a french fry, play a John Mayer CD, switch over to Nelly, and curl up in front of Little Miss Sunshine. Enjoy the flavors.

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