- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Custard desserts are the ultimate comfort food. Mild-flavored, sweet and creamy, they soothe the spirit as well as the palate. After I served creme brulee at a dinner party years ago, a friend remarked that it felt as good as it tasted.

Flavor and texture are the keys to understanding perfect custard.

Since the ingredients are simple — milk or cream or both and eggs, sugar and flavorings — the baking technique is all important. To achieve the perfect velvety texture, we need to pay careful attention to technique.

I’m a purist when it comes to adding flavoring to custard. Vanilla is most important, whether we add it as split whole beans or extract, so it is essential to buy good-quality vanilla.

Excellent vanillas are available online, if your supermarket doesn’t have a good selection. Yes, there was a recent wave of interest in Tahitian vanilla, and there’s nothing wrong with it — except the ridiculously high price. Tahitian vanilla, however, has a one-note, cherrylike flavor that lacks the finished complexity of Madagascar bourbon, which is still the gold standard for vanilla flavor. It comes from the island Madagascar off the east coast of Africa.

Make sure the vanilla is not adulterated with artificial flavors. Sometimes it is labeled “pure vanilla extract” and the words “with artificial vanilla added” appear in tiny letters below. Don’t buy it, and also leave the lavender flavoring in the garden and the Szechwan peppercorns at your local takeout restaurant. Stick with plain, good-quality vanilla extract.

While I occasionally flavor custard with a few strips of lemon or orange zest, I don’t want anything else to interfere with the natural delicacy of the custard flavor. The key to perfect texture in a baked custard is cooking it in a pan of warm water. The water insulates the bottom molds containing the custard mixture and ensures even transfer of heat, resulting in a creamy custard after baking rather than one that has a coarse, scrambled egg texture.

A roasting pan is a perfect container for baking custards. Just make sure that the warm water comes about halfway up the sides of the molds containing the custard mixture. If there is more water in the pan, it might unnecessarily delay the setting of the custard mixture.

Some custards, including creme brulee, are served in the container in which they are baked. However, if you choose to unmold individual custards, be gentle. Use just the tip of a paring knife to loosen the top 1/4 inch of the custard from the side of the mold. (Plunging the knife down to the bottom of the mold could tear the sides of the delicately set mixture.) Use your fingertips to ease the custard away from one side of the mold.

The idea is to introduce some air down the side between the baked custard and the mold. After that, invert the mold onto a plate and, holding both the mold and the plate together, give the stack a sharp downward thrust. The custard should pop right out. I like to unmold any custards that need it right before serving.

I like to serve lemon custard with a spoonful of raspberry sauce on the side. That’s about as wild as I get with presentation. A few chopped toasted nutmeats might make a pleasant contrast to the custard’s creamy texture, and a plain, crisp cookie such as a biscotti is also a welcome accompaniment, but nothing more elaborate is necessary. The emphasis here should be on the delicacy of the custard.

I prefer baking and chilling custards the day before serving. A good overnight chill makes unmolding easier when it’s necessary. Also, if you’re serving custard for a party, it’s one more thing you can get out of the way in advance — always a good plan.

A large egg is only 75 calories, and most custard desserts don’t have more than that in a portion. Don’t worry about excessive richness. You can enjoy delicate custard without a trace of guilt.

Lemon custard

The lemon flavor comes from steeping strips of lemon zest in the hot milk mixture before adding the eggs. Lemon juice would curdle the delicate custards while they bake.

Water

3 cups whole milk

2/3 cup sugar

3 medium lemons

4 large eggs

4 large egg yolks

2 teaspoons vanilla

Set 8 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups in a small roasting pan. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Turn off heat.

Combine milk and sugar in a medium saucepan and whisk several times to mix. Bring mixture to a boil over low to medium heat.

Use a vegetable peeler to remove just the yellow zest from the lemons in large strips. Avoid including any of the white pith below the zest, which would impart a bitter flavor. When the milk boils, remove it from heat, add lemon zest and allow to steep for 5 minutes.

Combine eggs, egg yolks and vanilla in a mixing bowl and whisk well but not until eggs become foamy. Strain milk mixture into a lipped container, such as a 4-cup measure, to remove the strips of zest. Pour milk into egg mixture in a thin stream, whisking constantly but not quickly to avoid creating too much foam.

After milk has been added, let mixture rest for 5 minutes, then use a ladle or large kitchen spoon to remove any foam from surface. Pour mixture into a lipped container, such as a 4-cup liquid measure, and use it to fill molds almost to top.

Place pan of molds on center rack of preheated 300-degree oven and immediately pour about 3 to 4 cups of warm water into pan around the molds, so that water comes about halfway up side of each mold. If molds fit tightly in the pan, it may be necessary to remove one temporarily to have room to pour in the water.

Bake custards for about an hour, or until they are completely set and no longer wobbly in the center. Remove pan from oven and place on a rack for 10 minutes to cool. Remove molds from pan and cool completely to room temperature. Individually wrap each mold in plastic and chill until you intend to serve. Serve custards in mold or unmold to dessert plates. (Keep refrigerated at all times. You may prepare these a day or two in advance but don’t keep them more than 3 days total.) Makes about 8 servings.

Variation: For orange custard, substitute the zest of 2 large oranges and one small lemon for the lemon zest.

Classic creme brulee

You’ll need a blowtorch (available at any hardware store) to caramelize the tops of the custards after they are baked. Some kitchenware stores carry small versions of the torch. You can also run them under a preheated broiler to caramelize the sugar. t’s just not as reliable as using a torcht’s just not as reliable as using a torch

1 quart heavy whipping cream

1 cup sugar

2 vanilla beans, split down the middle

14 large egg yolks

About 1 cup sugar

Set 10 shallow, oval porcelain dishes in a jelly roll pan or set 10 ovenproof coffee cups in a small roasting pan. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Turn off heat.

Combine cream, sugar and vanilla beans in a nonreactive saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off heat and allow vanilla beans to steep in hot cream for 10 minutes. Remove vanilla beans, scraping out centers into cream. Return cream to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk yolks in a bowl, then pour in hot cream, whisking constantly, in a thin stream. Don’t overmix and make a lot of foam on surface of mixture.

Strain custard into another bowl and allow it to stand 5 minutes. Skim foam from surface and bring bowl of custard to the stove. Place pan of prepared dishes on the stove and fill them with custard mixture.

Place pan on middle rack of preheated 325-degree oven and pour about ½ inch of warm water into pan, or more if using cups. Bake custards about 30 minutes until set but not puffed. Carefully remove pan from oven and use a large spatula to remove individual dishes to a cool pan. Refrigerate them covered until ready to caramelize.

Sprinkle each custard with a tablespoon or two of sugar, spreading it evenly. Use a blowtorch to caramelize the sugar, moving flame in a series of arcs to avoid leaving it in one place too long. Serve caramelized custards within several hours. Makes about 10 servings.


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