If eggs yolks and full cream milk could make babies, I’d imagine they’d taste a lot like custard.
The promiscuous mingling of these two key ingredients (and some other naughty bits thrown in) have resulted in an iconic sauce embraced the world over. Custard (creme anglaise) forms the foundation of many dessert favourites such as ice-cream, trifle, bavarois (custard based-mousse) and fools. It also fulfills the letter of being one of the most accommodative dessert accompaniments known to man.
The utilitarian cousin of creme anglaise: – Pastry cream (creme patissiere) , is a denser, thicker version of the sauce and is used extensively by pastry chefs to fill cakes, pastries, tarts and choux buns (think croquembouche). Pastry cream consists of the exact same elements used to make custard, with the slight difference of a thickening agent (usually cornflour) cooked into the mix.
Grasping the concept of custard-making is imperative for any aspiring-cook, as it aids one in understanding the building blocks of many well-known desserts. Take creme brulee and creme caramel for instance; these two classics possess a similar ingredient composition as custard (egg, milk/cream,sugar, vanilla) with slight variances in the mixing process, proportions and heat application.
BASIC CUSTARD RECIPE
90g caster sugar
6 egg yolks
1/2 vanilla pod (scored lengthways with seeds scraped out) *you can use a vanilla substitute if pods are hard to obtain
Place milk, cream, vanilla seeds and pod in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and remove from heat the moment it begins to bubble (leaving it to boil too long will cause moisture to evaporate). Set aside, and get on to the next job which is whisking the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl (metal, glass or ceramic – stay away from plastic) till combined and slightly pale (don’t have to get too crazy!).
STRAIN half of your hot milk mix into the whisked yolks – whisk immediately till well combined. Decant in the remaining hot milk mix and whisk well till smooth.
Pour boiling water into the saucepan and sit the bowl of mixture on top ensuring that the base of the bowl isn’t touching the water (bain marie). Now to exercise some patience. Use a silicon scraper, rubber spatula or wooden spoon and stir CONSTANTLY for the next few minutes (remember to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl). The mix will thicken gradually.
To test whether your custard has reached the desired consistency, coat the back of a wooden spoon with the mix, then quickly swipe a line across the surface with your finger (*refer to picture). Tilt the spoon slightly and if the mix shows some resistance before flowing back over the swipe, it’s ready. Immediately remove from heat and serve (hot/cold).
~ If too much heat is applied, the custard might begin to scramble. You can avert disaster by transferring the mix right away into a cool bowl. Subsequently, strain the custard through a fine sift.
~ Remember that the custard will always be thicker when chilled
~ Try not to make custard in overly large batches. It is always harder to control the cooking
~ When your custard-making skills develop, you can scrap the bain marie altogether and try cooking the custard in a thick-based saucepan over a low heat. The custard will come together much quicker. Just remember to scrape the sides and bottom of the saucepan well, and keep stirring!
~ Have a go at flavouring your custard (e.g. wattle seeds, cinnamon, mandarin zest, star anise, chai herbs etc.). Infuse these aromats as you would the vanilla.
Whipping up a batch of fresh custard does take a little more time out of our day, but it is definitely worth the effort. Take my word for it – once you’ve tasted home-made custard, you won’t go back to using the powdered or cartoned stuff. Don’t worry if you muck up initially; making mistakes is the best way to learn what not to do. Just have another go till you get it right. It is a fundamental skill that once acquired, will open up a gateway of dessert possibilities!
Get your custard on!