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.
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
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.
Photo credit: iStockPhoto