Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cooking Basics: The Ultimate Custard

When I was a bride, back when the earth was still cooling, I took it upon myself to learn the basics of cooking. This was before Julia Child had her PBS series, so it was up to me to find books and magazines with instructions I could follow.

One of the first things I learned to make was superb egg custard, which can easily be the filling for an old-fashioned custard pie or the basis for a crême caramel. I have made many of both over my lifetime of cooking.

For a beginning cook the techniques used in making custard will get you through many more complicated dishes. Custard couldn't be easier or more satisfying, so let me walk you through the steps.

You'll bake the mixture in a water bath (called a bain marie in French and in serious cooking circles, but let's stick to American English here). What it is is a pan of hot water into which your baking dish is placed to keep the delicate eggy mixture from getting too much heat at once, causing it to curdle.

The basic recipe is 1 1/2 Cups whole milk, 1/2 C half and half. Scald the milk--that is, heat it until tiny bubbles form around the edge--but do not allow to boil. This may sound rich, but you will truly have an elegant custard if you use whole milk. You can skip the half-and-half if you have cholesterol issues, and just use two cups of milk, but the outcome will be better if you do use a little cream. If you use two cups of half-and-half you just may die of the ecstasy.

In the meantime combine 1 whole egg and two egg yolks--save the whites for adding to omelets--with 1/3 C sugar. Add about 1/2 tsp vanilla and a dash of salt. Cool the milk slightly and add a splash to the egg mixture to combine. Then slowly mix in the rest.

This goes into custard cups or into a small casserole like those ubiquitous Corningware things with a stylized blue flower on it that all of us 1950's housewives have lurking in our pantries. Put in the water-bath and bake at 325 for about 45 mins, testing by inserting a knife into the center. If the knife comes out clean, the custard is done.

Of course the most delicious thing to make with this recipe is creme caramel, which is also easy but requires one more step. The custard is the same, but caramel is made by slowly browning about one cup of sugar and pouring it into the chosen vessel(s) for the custard while still hot. If using individual custard cups, just pour about a tablespoon in the bottom and swirl it to cover the bottom. If you're using a big pan pour the caramel into the bottom of the pan. The custard will dissolve it somewhat and when you invert the pan(s) it forms a sauce coating the little custard. You really can't invert them until the custards are chilled a while. To get them out, gently run a knife around the edge of the cup first to loosen. You probably won't need to do this with caramel custards; you have a built-in sauce.

You have to pay close attention when you're browning sugar. It's exciting to make, but if you overcook it it burns and is useless. Just watch it go from tan to brown and then remove immediately from the heat.

You'll look like an expert cook, and you will have mastered some of the important techniques any cook should know. I can promise you'll be proud of the result. Please comment here if you have any problems--or especially if you have success!