Cornstarch

Let me state my disdain for cornstarch. Such a statement can only be yuppie, but I will clothe it as a matter of taste.

There have been two memorable times I've used cornstarch in the past couple months. The first began with reading Muriel Spark's Cirriculum Vitae. I found myself at first intrigued then obsessed with a tangental description of a dessert wee Muriel had had with her mother at a Christmas party. Actually it wasn't really a description--just "some kind of orange mousse, served prettily in half-orange skins". This could only be the playing out of a fad for food in shells of fruit, something which brings irrational terror to my restrictive post-1960s sensibilities. Being a mousse, it was probably made with gelatin, again a capital crime. But for whatever reason the idea of orange-flavored, um, pudding (let's stay away from the word mousse), appealed strongly. I talked about making it for ages. I hadn't really worked out how. As usual, I'd just wing it. Pretty much the only way I get my jollies cooking anyway.

On Christmas I decided to make to bring to dinner at a friend's house. The timing and setting completed my fantasy. As for the actual method, I decided to go with a "pure" approach that in my mind had the advantage of enriching the orange color of the orange: it would be thickened with egg yolks. Perfect. A pudding made of orange juice, orange zest, sugar, a bit of cinnamon, and egg yolks. All I needed to do was mix it all together,and heat it slowly while whisking in paranoia. In my mind this would create something like lemon curd, but orange. It didn't. It was sweet, dully flavored orange soup. Well, okay, I thought, I won't use gelatin, but I will use cornstarch. Like Lemon-meringue pie. I mixed in more and more until it seemed almost as thick as I wanted it. It had to stay inside half an orange without spilling, after all. Everything was ready, and though I wasn't entirely pleased with the result, at least it would be presentable. Then the goop cooled. The starch became a white crust on top. Below that it had turned to a dusty texture. Apparently I had mixed in so much starch that it could not all be dissolved in water, and had precipitated in protest. Rather than going to the dinner with me, it went into the garbage. There was no use pretending it was something it wasn't--namely, edible.

(Actually, it didn't go immediately into the trash. I didn't serve it to anybody, but I left the dozen filled orange halves sitting on the counter for several days, waiting for myself to decide they were alright.)

More recently I actually made what I was modelling the orange goop on: lemon-meringue pie. My father had brought home a sizable box of Meyer lemons, and this was the best thing I could think of to do with them. It wasn't quite lemon-meringue pie. My brother is allergic to wheat, so the crust was out. I didn't want to bother making wheat-free crust, and the lazy oats-butter-sugar crust I sometimes make for pumpkin pie seemed like a disgusting pairing for lemon. So it would simply be lemon-meringue: lemon filling below meringue. My brother and I have done this many times before, usually with tangelos instead of lemons. It turned out well. Except that faint flavor and texture. It was aggravatingly hardly noticable, but unmistakable. Cornstarch. It was the thing that one didn't want to taste with lemon. It broke the fantasy of confectionary abstraction. One does not want to taste the construction of one's dessert any more than one wants to see a trash heap in the middle of the city or watch a bird's neck chopped every time one takes a bite of chicken. Food, especially dessert, is not about transparency.

I hate cornstarch.

30 January 2012