I’ve enjoyed two new discoveries, Portuguese custard desserts. Now I’m digging back into my past to find childhood custard favourites.
The English would not dream of serving pudding or sweet, as dessert is usually called, without lashings of hot creamy custard. It is poured generously over fruit pies, crumbles, jam rolypoly and spotted dick. Even relative newcomers such as sticky toffee pudding are improved by the addition of custard. Of course, some philistines make it with the famous Bird’s Custard Powder which contains no eggs. I decline. It is very easily made from scratch. It will go very well with a peach pie I have in mind.
Thomas Cromwell, in The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, which I am reading in lockdown, describes an aromatic custard best eaten warm. It is made with ‘fresh hen’s eggs and a pitcher of cream and you need to be a prince of the church to afford the sugar,’ he comments. He was writing of the days before King Henry VIII totally abolished the monasteries. ‘The custard quaked in waves of sweetness and spice,’ he continued: ‘Nutmeg, mace and cumin.’
My granny made a baked egg custard, topped with spices ground with a mortar and pestle, which was the delight of my childhood in London. Their large house off Wimbledon Common is now home to a very senior judge. At the time I lived there, during and immediately post-WW II, there were still staff: a cook, a housekeeper and a man to do odd jobs and keep the temperamental coal-burning boiler going. When we could get coal, that is. A very old soldier came in to help with the garden three times a week. Later downed German aviators from the POW camp up the road came to help, for cigarettes and a few pennies. One of them made me a gift of the iconic Wimbledon Windmill. We had access to eggs, milk and sugar, even during rationing, because my grandfather supplied John Courage beer to a couple of hundred pubs in the south. In return for ensuring their pubs received a regular supply of suds, his car boot was filled with contraband country produce after his regular visits. In wartime, we were without shame.
I believe my granny’s dessert, which she made for us on cook’s day off, is a direct descendant of Cromwell’s custard, the second recipe.
Proper English custard
- 2 cups whole milk
- ¼ cup whipping cream
- 4 eggs, yolks only
- 2 TBSP white sugar
- 2 tsp cornflour
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
Preparation and cooking
- Bring the milk and cream to simmering point slowly over a low heat. TIP: Do not let it boil.
- Separate the eggs, keeping the yolks and discarding the whites. Hand whisk the yolks, sugar and cornflour together in a bowl until well blended.
- Slowly add the hot milk and cream to the eggs and sugar, whisking all the time.
- Pour the sauce back into the pan and add vanilla extract. Gently stir with a wooden spatula over low heat until thickened. TIP: To prevent scorching the custard, use a double boiler, or a stainless steel pan set over boiling water.
- Warm a ceramic jug with hot water. Pour the custard into the jug and serve at once, or stand the jug in a pan of hot water to keep warm.
This is a very thin custard, delicately flavoured, which bakes very slowly, and is just as Cromwell described, quaking in ‘waves of sweetness and spice.’ The result is delicious. Serves 6.
- 570 ml / 2 cups whole milk
- 2 eggs, beaten
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla essence
- ½ tsp grated nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- 1/8 tsp ground cumin
Preparation and cooking
- Preheat oven to 325°F/165°C.
- Whisk milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla together in a bowl until completely combined.
- Mix the ground spices together and set aside.
- Pour egg mixture into 4 to 6 ramekins; sprinkle tops with the ground spice mix. Less is better than more, so there may be some left over.
- Place cups in a baking pan and fill pan with enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the custard cups.
- Bake in the preheated oven until custards are set, about 1 hour. Serve while still warm, or set in the fridge overnight to serve cold the next day.
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This is Nigel’s 278th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbook, a bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook will be live as soon as it is published (that is shortly after the pandemic is over).
Categories: Simply food