Friday, April 13, 2012

Custard 101

There are only two kinds of food: ice cream, and everything else.
A bit of Everything Else
Now that you know this, you understand why I go slightly off my rocker whenever I encounter some food nut saying that sugar or dairy are “terrible”, “addictive”, “poison,” etc. 
And knowing that (my propensity to go livid at the drop of a hat) explains my present long silence. I’ve had to restrain myself, gentle reader, in this season of idiotic politicians and even more idiotic food blogs, from writing things I might come to regret. Not that I’d ever change my mind about statements like “Colleges are indoctrination factories,” but public spewing in a way that comes off as nuts is one sure way of alienating friends.
But back to the point: Ice cream and Other. 
Other is not necessarily second-rate, it’s just ... not ice cream. Which is probably a good thing, ‘cause here in the Luce household we’ve had to ban ice cream bulk purchases. It’s ‘way too much temptation to have in the freezer (I did not say people can eat nothing but sugar and cream, or either of those in unlimited quantities), plus the reward of ice cream while on vacation or under stress (read: visiting Ohio) keeps the taste buds in tip-top form. 
Growing up in 1950’s semi-rural Ohio, ice cream was a rare treat. For many years my mother did not drive and when Dad was at work, we were isolated at home. The nearest supermarket was more than a mile away. Even carried in the double-paper insulation bags that stores provided in those years, ice cream would melt before it got to the freezer. Unless of course we went for it in January, but that image is ridiculous even to me: Mom pulling a wagon or sled with my sister and brother in it, me in my snowsuit and steel-buckle goulashes walking behind, a north wind keening and the thermometer bouncing off zero. Little Nell does Ohio, or the Luces On Their Way for Ice Cream. Once we got it home the fun would not have been over. The freezer compartment atop our refrigerator had barely enough room for a tray of ice cubes and a single pint of something. (Why some designer thought that ice cubes could be more important than The Good Stuff is beyond me, but so be it). In a family of five, one pint of Number One Food does not amity make. So we eschewed ice cream as a home treat.
That changed in the ’60’s when Mom got her driver’s license and we got a larger freezer, but long before then I’d come to appreciate the rarity of ice cream. It was what we bought at the Canfield Fair, on drives to Lake Erie, or on hot summer nights when being in a moving vehicle, wind rushing through our hair as we crossed Youngstown en route to a favorite scoop stand, was a perfect escape from summer doldrums.
Often enough our motorized forages for ice cream took on the traits of a pilgrimage, with the holy grail being a perfect cone. To my father - still the family driver in those years - this meant finding a variation of ice cream: frozen custard. I honestly don’t remember if I had the capacity then to distinguish between the two. Perfect was perfect - the right taste, texture, richness. If it was cold and smooth and sweet, who cared if the recipe included eggs? 
When I daydream back to those childhood days, two treats cross in my memory tastebuds: ice cream and custard. NOT frozen custard, custard. Eggs and liquid, blended in the right ratio with the right flavors and baked in a water bath, or bain Marie. This (bain Marie) is not something I recall my mother doing, but I do recall home-made lemon custards, so she must have.
Every so often these days I keen for a custard. Ice Cream, that #1 food, is an easy addiction to fulfill: there’s delis within half a block. So no keening there. But custard - GOOD custard - is less easy to find. I’ve learned that if I want it I have to make it myself.
Here’s an irreverent aside: Frozen custard has become as rare as internet logic, a victim - I suspect - of paranoia about eggs and their alleged cholesterol. We did find an excellent source on a recent trip to New Mexico. If you’re in Alamagordo to visit the White Sand Dunes, take the highway northbound out of town, and keep your eyes peeled. ‘Nuff said. 
Here’s the great thing about making your own custard: you are neither a slave to a deli’s frozen food locker, a particular array of flavors, or a particular portion size. If you’re willing to play with eggs and milk and sugar, you can come up with excellence. It can even be in a small package.
Good, but far from perfect.

Recently I made a strawberry rhubarb pie and ended up with a half cup of leftover fruit juice. (Seepage is what happens when you add sugar to fruits and let them stand. Draining all but a small amount of this away keeps the pie from being soupy.) Unwilling to either throw it away or drink it straight, I decided to incorporate it into custard. What I’d make, I thought, would not be ice cream, but it would fulfill a personal dessert requirement: contrasting mouthfeel. That is, it would hold the sensations of custard (squishy, smooth and moist) against those of sweet pie crust (crunchy, flaky and dry). And at the same time be decadently rich and sweet.
The first task was blind-baking pie crusts. There was leftover dough in the freezer - a planned strategy: I’d made more than needed for that strawberry-rhubarb pie - so I chopped off enough to make two 5” diameter discs and filled two 4” pie pans. These little babies are just right to make dessert for 2 (providing your significant other likes custard pie, which my wife does not - so I ended up with 4 desserts. C’est la vie.) 12 minutes at 425 was perfect. I reset the oven to 325 and went to work on the custard blend.
I had a bit less than 2 ounces of strawberry-rhubarb juice. The custard ratio is 2 parts liquid to one part egg (by weight). With a large egg coming in at 55 grams - also just under 2 ounces - I needed to double the liquid to make a workable batch. I wanted something really rich, however, so instead of settling on the single egg, I used one large egg and one large yolk. These together weighed 83 grams, so I boosted my fruit juice cocktail with heavy cream, milk and lemon juice to make a total of 166 grams. This was about 3 parts cream, 2 parts milk and 1 part lemon juice. 3 tablespoons of sugar were necessary to cut the lemon’s tartness. I whisked everything together, divided it between the pie shells and set them into the oven.
The trickiness of custard is mitigated a bit when pies are the container. You don’t use a bain Marie - at least, I don’t. You just have to keep checking every so often and pull the pies when the custard hits the right jiggle point. With these pies that was 45 minutes.
Cooled, they were pink and tasty but not packed with enough flavor for my palette.  Plus, the crust was soggy in the middle. They weren’t, in other words, competition for Number One Food. But I already had a plan for something that would be.
.... More to follow...!

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