Monday, April 23, 2012

Custard 102

Creamy, crunchy, etc...

When last we spoke, Gentle Reader, you were holding a soggy pie shell filled with pinkish and not-quite-perfect fruit custard (if, that is, you had the stamina to follow me through childhood food adventures and half a rant about food nuts) and wondering when you’d be “filled in” with the info needed to reach nirvana. 
Perfect Dessert is what we were after - the sublime blend of crunch and smooth, of sugar and fat and fruit. Competition for Food Number One - Ice cream. Simultaneously luscious and chewy, decadent and fulfilling. Small enough to not overwhelm but rich enough to threaten to.
With fruit custard pie I was on track, but for my goals to be met the shell could not soggy.  Flakiness was essential. The shortening couldn’t cloy and the flavors needed to be complex, nutty, and a little mysterious. Also, the amount of shell had to be ratioed perfectly to the amount of custard. Too much or too little of either and the experience would be incomplete.
It struck me that there was a way to accomplish this. I’d make flat discs of pie shell, make small units of custard, then combine the two just before serving. That way I could control all parts of the synthesis.
This time I reverted far into childhood and made a lemon custard. Again this is something I can’t imagine my mother making, but yet she must have, for right next to a taste-memory of banana custard is one of lemon custard. Smooth and citrus-y and sweet and yellow as an egg yolk, I can feel it on my tongue as surely as if it happened yesterday.
Just like childhood, but without the high chair.
Well, actually, it did happen yesterday, because that’s when I made “Not ‘Nillas” - so called because they so much look like ‘Nilla wafers, and yet they are so much Not.
The wafer part came easily. I had some leftover pie dough in the ‘fridge. It was a cinch to roll it out to @ 1/8” and use a cookie cutter to form 2” rounds. I might have fancied them up by making them wider, then turning up and shaping a scalloped edge, but at that moment I was a tad too hungry I mean enthusiastic. 

7 minutes in a 425 F oven baked them nicely. While they cooled I reset the oven temp to 325 and prepped the custard.
Getting just the right size was important. I used some tiny bowls my wife Leslie gave me for Christmas some years back. Each holds 1/8 cup (2 tablespoons) and is perfect for measuring small amounts of ingredients, which is why Leslie got them. She’d seen me struggling with my tenth-gram scale and Pyrex measuring cups, which overwhelmed it, and thought I could use smaller containers. They worked perfectly, and I thought they’d be just as perfect for molding custard. I buttered them and poured in my custard blend, set them in a medium sauce pan, poured in an inch of boiling water and viola!, bain Marie. 20 minutes was all it took to set the custard, and another 20 to cool. Chilled in the refrigerator they looked promising, but, sadly the custard did not disengage easily. Turned over onto the discs the custard flopped and fractured and ended up not looking very professional. Nonetheless I took a bite.
OMG! Dessert nirvana! They looked so plain and yet tasted so wonderful! Even Leslie, my custard-hater-in-residence, willingly ate one. Two. Hey, That's Mine!!!
There remained only one part to adjust, an element I’d not considered when embarking on this project: temperature. I like my custards chilled, but I don’t enjoy a cold pie crust.   This was easily fixed by giving the crust a few seconds in the microwave and mounting the custard very chilled. Served immediately, before the two entities had a chance to perform temperature exchange, they really were perfect.
Smitten and bitten. Or vice-versa.

The custard formula, by the way is:
Stir together 1 large egg and 1 large egg yolk. Put a medium bowl on the kitchen scale and pour the egg mix in. Note the weight. Add about 1 1/3 this amount of heavy cream, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and whatever amount of whole milk needed to bring the liquid weight to 2 times the egg weight. A pinch of salt and a tablespoon of sugar completes the ingredient list. Whisk together thoroughly and pour into 4 Oz. ramekins or little ceramic measuring cups. Put in a bain Marie and bake at 325 until the edges of the custard set and the center is jiggly. Carefully remove and allow to cool before refrigerating.
Thus ends my series of one-bite desserts. Which, the astute reader will notice, has strayed considerably into multi-bite territory.
In the coming weeks you’ll be following me as I sojourn through suburban building and health departments to launch my Bread in a Bag business. Wish me luck, Gentle Reader, and have some Not ‘Nilla while I sweat.

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