Portland’s Gabe Rucker Shows Us How to Save a Dessert Gone Wrong

Who even wanted crème brûlée anyway?

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Mar 23 2017, 7:00pm

Even a professional chef with a great reputation and an international following can fuck up dessert. The difference between such a chef and the rest of us, however, is that the chef will know how to salvage dessert and make it into a thing of beauty.

That's what happened when Gabriel Rucker of Portland's Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro came to the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen. He wanted to experiment with a new spin on crème brûlée, made with coconut milk and topped with a rum and coconut granita instead of caramelized sugar. When things went awry, Rucker pulled off a bit of culinary magic and transformed the funky remnants of the crème brûlée into a magnificent parfait that he calls Tropical Cookies and Cream.

Gabriel Rucker. All photos by Alex Swerdloff.

You'd never know it resulted from a crème brûlée gone wrong. 

RECIPE: Rum and Coconut Granita

Rucker began by making the rum and coconut granita, which he intended to place on top of the crème brûlée. 

"Our dessert is going to feature coconut, rum, lime, cookies and cream, and vanilla, which is essentially all of my favorite things," he explained. First, Rucker used a paring knife to cut a vanilla bean in half and scraped the insides out "to get the nice speckles." He suggested saving the empty vanilla bean pods, drying them in an oven overnight, and then putting them in a coffee grinder to make vanilla powder, which, he explained, "is a really great thing to sprinkle on desserts."

Rucker said you should only bring the granita mixture up to a very light simmer so that you "infuse the vanilla and lime flavor" as well as briefly "melt the sugar and let everything come together." Rucker then added fresh lime juice and rum to taste, warning that "alcohol doesn't freeze, so we want to be careful to not add too much rum in. If you're a real boozehound, drink it on the side. Too much rum will cause you to not have a frozen ice, but a little bit adds a really nice flavor and it helps the texture be a little bit more slushy-like."

The trick to making granita, Rucker said, is putting it in a sheet tray or shallow glass bowl—it could be metal or plastic—allowing it to freeze more quickly and evenly. Then you take a fork and scrape it; this gives the ice that shaved texture you want.

Then came the crème brûlée. Rucker said he hadn't made crème brûlée in years, but he wanted to try it anyway. Furthermore, he intended to make a different kind of crème brûlée by combining heavy cream with coconut milk, along with his "secret weapon" of coconut cream, added for good measure. After baking ramekins of the stuff for 25 minutes, Rucker checked to see how the crème brûlée looked.

That's when things went, well, not exactly according to plan.

RECIPE: Tropical Cookies and Cream

Rucker explained, "We ended up with this monstrosity, which I took a  bite out of just to make sure it was truly fucked up, and it is."

The custard in question.

Was it the coconut cream? The coconut milk? We may never know.

Undeterred, Rucker had a brilliant idea.

He began thinking out loud: "My favorite thing in the world is whipped cream—I got this whipped cream tattoo recently and it's probably my favorite tattoo out of a lot. Stiff peaks baby, that's how you live your life. We're going to make some awesome whipped cream. Heavy cream will be my favorite ingredient forever."

After poking around the test kitchen, Rucker found some vanilla wafers and Oreo-like cookies—just what the doctor ordered.

"That's all right. Because while the crème brûlée might be going in the garbage, we have our organic vanilla wafers and our Back to Nature 'Oreo' cookies and we have some cream we were going to use anyways. We made that killer granita and I think we can save dessert. We're still going to follow that concept of something you can dig into."

Before we knew it, Rucker had assembled a masterpiece: Tropical Cookies and Cream, topped with rum and coconut granita.

Who even wanted crème brûlée anyway?


Gabriel Rucker is an award-winning chef and owner of the restaurants Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro, in Portland, Oregon.