I had been turning the thought of making custard over in my mind even before November’s monthly mingle (hosted by My Custard Pie) was announced. But, I always hesitate a bit about custard–not because I’m worried about the classic concerns, such as a glum pudding that resembles runny scrambled eggs (though I worry about that too) or that comes out overcooked (also angst-worthy)–but because it feels a bit profligate to use all those egg yolks. I feel bad wasting whites, so I keep them in my freezer until…
Yes, the guilt. (What is that old saw about women feeling needlessly guilty all the time?) My husband, who is very encouraging of my making of custard, has been trying to convince me this is silly and to just make some already. (Might I note that he also is blissfully unaware of my constant reshuffling of the fridge, shifting expiring items forward and sliding unopened milk cartons and orange juices jugs towards the rear).
Much as some of us buy new gym clothes to encourage us to work out (with not always stellar effect) I not-so-recently bought some miniature cocotte pots at Williams Sonoma’s (ahem) Christmas clearance sale (ahem) last January. (Another takeaway from this is to never doubt the power of the words “50% off already reduced prices.” Please note I was only seduced by very deep discounting: I don’t want you to think I spent the originally stickered $50 each).
And while you might think the fact that I had to pull those stickers off of them last week to make this custard could be the irrefutable proof that they were an unwise impulse buy, I have no regrets. They are just too charming. You know how it goes with things in miniature. And in my defense, it could have been worse. I could have decided I needed a kitchen blowtorch for creme brulee while I was at it. (Oddly, my husband thinks this would be a sensible purchase. This seems to beg another cliché about men and fire).
Now that this preamble is out of the way, on to the custard.
I can’t help but love this whole genre: creme caramels, pots de creme, crema catalana, flan, puddings…I went through a period where I just kept ordering creme brulees on the restaurant menu, until I realized I was becoming far too predictable and it was time to stop neglecting the other desserts out there. But one resists change: if dessert is about comfort, it’s hard to get more at that essence than this.
With just three components, using good ingredients matters, as does technique (for more on that, please see Shuna Lydon’s very helpful video tutorials over at food52.) I used my favorite Berkshires Jersey cream and local maple syrup. (Sadly, my source for free-range eggs has dried up, as chickens don’t lay as much when the days are shorter).
As for the technique, please see those videos I mentioned above, but here’s a few comments of my own. You’ll need to place your custard cups in a water bath: set your filled cups in a large cake pan, and then fill up about an inch or so with hot water. Make sure it’s hot, or it will never finish cooking (as I learned with a bad bread pudding episode). And make sure not to add too much water, or you risk splashing yourself–ouch–or your custards–sniff–with it when you go to remove the finished product from the oven. (Again, I learned the hard way). A hot water bath ensures your custards bake gently, resulting in a creamy, gliding texture.
The other potential misstep is making a custard that more closely resembles oversweetened, runny scrambled eggs. The same principle of the water bath applies: You want to be sure you do not allow the yolks to cook too quickly when they first come into contact with your hot milk or cream. Temper the eggs by stirring only a bit of the hot cream into your eggs, whisking well to prevent lumps. Add a bit more, whisk, and then you can finally completely combine all the cream–but keep whisking! Tempering merely means bringing two items of differing temperatures to the same temperature (it’s often done with chocolate as well).
As further insurance, strain your custard mixture through a fine mesh sieve. This will strain out any large cooked egg particles, as well as those stringy fibrous bits of egg white that can cling to even a well-separated yolk. (The technical name is chalazae, but please don’t ask me how to pronounce it).
This dessert: subtle but delicious. The maple was almost a background note, floating lightly and delicately in the rich pudding. The custard tasted almost nutty to me at first, which was startling, but then made perfect sense: why else would maple pair so pleasingly with nuts, from pecans to walnuts?
Baked Maple Custard (adapted from Lindsay Shere’s Chez Panisse Desserts)
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/2c maple syrup
- 6 egg yolks
Preheat the oven to 325F.
Heat the cream until steaming hot. Whisk the syrup into the egg yolks (do not allow the mixture to sit unmixed as the sugar will chemically “cook” the yolks). Pour about a 1/4 c or so of the hot cream mixture into the yolk-sugar mixture, whisking all the while. Add about another 1/4-1/2c and whisk. You can now add this back into the hot cream, continuing to whisk.
Pour into your custard cups (anything ceramic or cast iron will work well). Use a kitchen scale to make sure you pour the same amount into each cup, so that everything bakes evenly. Set your cups into a cake pan, and fill halfway up the sides of your custard cups with hot water. Place in the oven. (You can also add the water after you put the pan in the oven). Lay a piece of aluminum foil over your cups.
Bake for 45 minutes or up to 60 minutes or more (a deeper pot, like mine, will cook more slowly). Your custard will still jiggle when it is done, and you can use a tester to double-check. (If it comes out clean, it’s definitely done and hopefully not overdone). Chill before serving. (We ate it warm, and it’s certainly good that way, though better cold).
Notes: Since maple syrup is the star here, it’s worth saying a few words. Maple syrup comes in various grades. Grade A “Fancy” is perhaps the most well-known, but Grade B (which is preferred by “real” New Englanders) has a more robust flavor. (This recipe in fact suggests Grade C maple, which I have never seen for purchase) I usually buy only Grade B, but here I used a mix of A and B, for no other reason than that I was trying to use up a small jar of Grade A syrup I bought at the farmer’s market last year. Please don’t tell me if maple syrup doesn’t keep that long. I don’t want to know).
You’ll notice, if you watch the videos (which I hope you do) that I did not incorporate all of Shuna’s suggestions. Namely because I started these custards too late in the day! But I hope to try all of her tricks very soon.