A delicious way to network: baked custard

Of all of the alliances between egg and dairy, custard is one of the most interesting to me. Silky in texture, elegant in flavor, acceptable to tastes ranging from unadventurous children to the most discerning adult, it's a perfect way to enjoy the eggs and milk you worked so hard to source from SOLE producers. It's also a good way to use up extra yolks you might have from an angel food cake or another egg-white-intensive project.

A custard is essentially a liquid that is given structure by a loose network of egg proteins. As Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" explains, uncooked eggs contain tightly coiled proteins that are relatively evenly dispersed throughout the liquid. When heated, they uncoil and intertwine with neighboring proteins, creating solidity. The degree of intertwining — and thus the texture of the finished product — depends on the overall concentration of proteins (i.e., whether the egg is cooked alone or along with a liquid), the rate of heating, the cooking temperature, and additives like salt. In a custard, the added liquids disperse the proteins, which creates a velvety softness.

There are countless ways to flavor a custard. You can use citrus zest, whole or ground spices, chocolate, caramel, liqueur, vanilla, even herbs. I am particularly fond of orange-spice custard, in which orange zest and whole spices are steeped in the warm dairy ingredients to infuse it with a bright and exotic flavor. In one of my more experimental moods, I flavored a custard with mastiha (also known as mastic), a resin harvested from the Pistacia lentiscus shrub on the island of Chios in the Aegean sea. It has a distinct and pleasant piney flavor.

You can find a custard to fit almost any situation. Cold and stormy outside? Try chocolate, served warm. A bright and warm spring lunch? Try a chilled vanilla custard. Let your mood and the ingredients in your pantry lead you to delicious networking.

A recipe for baked custard can be found after the jump.

Baked Custard

Adapted from James McNair's "Custards, Mousses and Puddings"

4 cups milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream, or a mixture
6 whole eggs or 8 egg yolks (or an appropriate mixture like 3 whole eggs and 4 yolks)
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch salt
Flavoring (see variations below)
(Weights and Measures, Metric Conversion)

Preheat the oven to 300 F (150 C). Bring water to a simmer in a pot or electric kettle.

Combine the dairy in a small saucepan. Heat over medium-low until bubbles form around the edge (avoid boiling it). If your flavoring requires some steeping time, turn off the heat and let the mixture steep. Pour the mixture through a strainer into a heat-proof pitcher like a Pyrex measuring cup.

In a heat-proof bowl large enough to contain all of the ingredients, beat the eggs lightly, but not too vigorously (air incorporated during mixing will result in air bubbles in the custard). Stir in the sugar and salt. Gradually add the dairy mixture to the egg mixture, stirring gently as you add it. Add the vanilla extract (if using). Stir until combined. Strain the mixture into a heat-proof pitcher.

Pour the strained mixture into a 2-quart baking dish, six 8-ounce ovenproof custard cups, or eight 6-ounce ovenproof custard cups.

Transfer the containers to a baking pan, place the pan in the oven, and pour in enough hot (but not boiling) water so that the water goes up to about two-thirds of the custard's height in the container(s). Bake until a knife inserted near the edge of the custard comes out barely clean, about 45 minutes (this time depends on the size of the dishes, so check sooner for the smaller custard cups). The center will still wobble slightly when shaken. The water bath should stay at a low simmer — if it approaches boiling, reduce the oven temperature slightly.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Serve warm or at room temperature, or cover tightly and chill for several hours or overnight. 

Flavorings

  • Citrus: Add the grated zest of one or two organically grown oranges, lemons, lines or tangerines to the dairy before heating it. After it reaches the proper temperature and you turn off the heat, let the zest steep for about 15 minutes before straining the mixture.
  • Orange-spice: Add the grated zest of one or two organic oranges, 8 green cardamom pods (broken open and the seeds lightly crushed), 1 cinnamon stick (broken into pieces) to the dairy before heating it. After it reaches the proper temperature and you turn off the heat, let the mixture steep for about 15 minutes before straining it into a heat-proof pitcher.
  • Mastiha: Add a tablespoon mastiha crystals to the milk before heating. While the milk warms, stir frequently to dissolve the crystals. Note that this will wreak havoc on stainless-steel pots, sticking with vigor and resisting removal. I'm not sure how whether it also sticks to cast iron, ceramic coatings or glass.
  • Vanilla: If using vanilla extract, stir two teaspoons into the egg-milk mixture before the final straining. If using a vanilla bean, add one vanilla bean, split lengthwise, to the dairy before heating. After straining the dairy into the eggs, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the dairy-egg mixture (Shuna has some great tips about how to use vanilla beans).
  • Chocolate: To use cocao powder, mix 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch processed or not, depending on your preference) with the sugar before combining it with the eggs. To use chocolate: finely chop 6 to 8 ounces of chocolate (milk or bittersweet, or maybe even white) and add it to the warm dairy. Stir until melted. Remove from heat and allow it toe rest for 15 minutes or so before straining.

Photo credit: iStockPhoto

3 Responsesto “A delicious way to network: baked custard”

  1. Andy says:

    This reminds me of my favorite custard filled pastry: bougatsa. I ate it all the time in Greece. It was incredible. I've never made it at home, but I am planning on trying sometime. Your post just inspired me.

  2. Lia del Rancho says:

    Custard is so good that you can do it a simpler way. I would rather be outside with my garden and animals than in the kitchen. In a blender I put in some eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, and nutmeg. Pour all into a pan. Put in oven. Better this way than not at all. Sometimes you think you can't eat all this great food from either your own garden and pet chickens or the market because you won't do the fancy recipes, but that's just not true. It's so much fun to eat good things even with little preparation. Happy Spring! Go start your first garden! Baby chickens will be for sale in the feed stores in a couple of months!

  3. ExPat Chef says:

    Not a Rachel Ray fan, but you can make a mousse-like custard even easier! We put the chocolate chips, egg, and some rum in the blender, then heat the milk, add and blend. Refrigerate. For the slacker dessert, food network has that recipe, something like Decadent Duos, or whatever. It's the only recipe of hers that I have ever used. Quite good and ridiculously easy. Though not a sub for real custard.