Mousse, gelatin and cornstarch-based puddings are delicious, but egg custard is the most basic sweet, whether in the form of an almost-nursery-food cup custard or the rich and elegant crème brûlée (which I’ll admit takes a little more technique).
You can modulate custard’s richness, as well as play with the sweetness and flavoring. Standard white sugar and vanilla are classic ingredients in an egg custard, but honey, some part brown sugar, maple syrup or sorghum can also sweeten it while herbs and other aromatics lend flavor. Steep lavender, rosemary, bay, cinnamon sticks, or lemon or orange rind in the milk to create a unique and delicate perfume for your dessert.
Eggs are what make a custard firm, so you’ll need at least two, but you can add another whole egg or two more yolks for a silkier texture and more egg whites for a stiffer texture. This makes egg custard the perfect way to use up an uneven number of either yolks or whites you might have from another recipe, such as a meringue or béarnaise sauce. This is also a recipe where fresh farm eggs really make a difference.
I happened to have some half-and-half in the fridge, but almost any combination of milk products will work, even all milk or all cream.
It’s cute to bake the custard in individual cups or ramekins, especially to serve guests, but it’s not necessary. It will bake very well in any not-too-deep baking dish.
Don’t skip the water bath when you bake the custard. Moisture makes the custard set slowly to the right texture. I put the dish, cups or ramekins into a large, deep, roasting pan, fill the pan with a couple inches of water, and then pour the egg-milk mixture into each dish. If it’s too full, the pan will be too hard to move into the oven without sloshing water everywhere. If the water doesn’t reach about two-thirds up to the top of the dishes, I pour in a bit more after I get the pan into the oven.
Custard is wonderful to eat with fruit. The watermelon you see here might not be the obvious match, but it was certainly delicious. A few spoonfuls of berries or slices of mango per portion are always lovely. Autumnal poached or roasted pears and plums or chunky, unsweetened homemade applesauce are perfect custard partners, too. To turn the egg custard into crème caramel, line the baking dishes with a few spoonfuls of caramelized sugar syrup before filling them with the egg mix.
Yield: 4-6 servings
- 2 cups any combination of milk (whole, lower fat, cream, half-and-half, etc.)
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/4-1/3 cup sorghum
- a dash of salt
- 2-3 eggs (or additional egg or whites or yolks-see above)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Simmer milk over very low heat with vanilla and nutmeg (or other desired spices). Remove milk from heat, and add sorghum, salt and eggs. Beat with whisk or fork.
Place ramekins, cups or baking dish in a large pan filled with about 1 inch water. Pour egg mix into dishes and place pan in oven. If needed, add more water to pan to reach about two-thirds the way up side of dish. Bake until set, about 30 min.