Friday 13 March 2015

Rehabilitating Custard: A How-to Guide to an Age-old Favourite

Custard has been around for a long time. A quick glance at some of the earliest cookery books reveals it being used as a dessert or sauce, making use of two main ingredients in Western cooking, dairy and eggs. While custard was originally something of an upper class food or one reserved for celebrations, the improvement of general living conditions allowed for its consumption to gradually become democratized as it emerged as a convenient one pot dessert or sauce that was easy enough to make and accessible.

In recent years though, be it due to the rise of vanilla pudding or the strange British preoccupation with the canned and powdered variety, homemade custard has fallen from grace.While the most likely culprit of this is the arcing growth of post-WWII convenience consumption, it seems strange indeed that instant custard has remained en vogue this long. While a host of people move back to baking their own bread and making their own cheese, processes which are significantly more time consuming than custard making, this age-old dish remains largely neglected. A little while ago we hosted some friends and they were completely blown away when they had hot homemade custard on berries like the one pictured in this post, little did they know how fast and simple it was to make!

The first thing you need to know about custard is how incredibly versatile it is. Custard can be served drizzled over berries or on pie (as seen in the UK), poured straight and left to sit in the fridge to become American pudding. As pudding it can be flavoured with melted chocolate, jam or other flavours. Custard can sandwich cookies together, fill nanaimo bars or be frozen to make ice cream! It can be made thin to pour over waffles or thick to stand out on its own, it can even become a savoury sauce which can go oh so well on fish with some lemon zest, salt and dill or as a filling for a quiche!

Custard, adaptability is thy virtue and simplicity thy name. 

So once you've wrapped your head around how awesome custard is. it's about time to give it a go!

Custard Basics

Custard is necessarily composed of two ingredients: eggs and dairy, once these ingredients are whipped into a homogenous mass they are cooked at low heat which allows the eggs and milk to bind, thickening together to make custard.

Eggs & Fat: The more eggs and fat (ie cream over milk) that you add, the richer the custard. Similarly, the amount of eggs you add dictates how yellow your custard will be as the colour comes from the egg yolks. A very rich custard would be made using egg yolks and butter or cream, while a light custard might use whole eggs and milk. The custard pictured above was made with two eggs and a bit of milk, notice the rich yellow colour and thickness? It was high on egg content.

Sweet: For sweet custards sugar is very helpful as a thickener, a large quantity is not necessary as a touch is enough to bring out the flavour of the eggs and dairy.

Savoury: As savoury custards lack sugar, a higher fat content and/or a longer cooking time are necessary. Traditionally thickeners such as flour, gelatin or corn starch can also do the trick. Though I lean towards adding more fat to my custard to thicken it, using butter, cream, sour cream and even mixing some cheese it should it suit the mood. In some cases a spoonful of flour can help thicken the sauce but remember that the more thickener you add, the less flavour there is and the less rich the sauce tastes.

Flavouring: Lemon zest or vanilla (seed or extract) are two of my favorite flavourings for custard. Otherwise feel free to add a bit of jam or melted chocolate at the end but keep in mind that you don't want your additives to be too hot as that can lead to the biggest issue with custard...

Curdling: It is necessary to keep in mind when you make custard that the biggest risk is that your eggs curdle. This leads to a custard that is somewhat grainy as opposed to velvety and which will taste more "eggy". If you do overcook your custard, it isn't the end of the world, while it won't win any awards its still quite tasty so don't skip out on custard-making out of fear.

How to avoid curdling: A low, even heat and constant movement is key here. The best tools for making a smooth custard are a double-boiler and a whisk. The double-boiler allows for a low and evenly applied heat and the whisk keeps the custard in motion.

Technique: Make sure to whisk constantly and evenly, reach into every corner and maker sure that the mix does not stick anywhere. Don't hesitate tilt the pot as you whisk to maker sure that the mixture is not sticking anywhere.

Don't have a double-boiler? Feel free to improvise one by putting a small pot in a large one with hot water in it or simply live on the wild side and do without. As you'll notice in my photos, I don't tend to use one as it makes for a faster process. However, the downside is that chances that your custard curdle are much higher without and you'll have to compensate with more watchfulness and some seriously fast whisking. Using this method, your custard will thicken much faster so watch out and move quickly to take it off the burner once it's thick.

So bellow this I've attached a few photos of the custard-making process, this made enough custard for two puddings or as topping to three or so ramekins of berries.

As for actually making the custard:

I combined 2 eggs, slightly more than 1/8 c. sugar with a dash of vanilla extract and perhaps 1/4 cup of milk.

Whisked it over medium-low heat for a few moments

And poured over fresh strawberries

Served with a bit of dark chocolate and icing sugar as garnish, that's it!

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