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14 September 2005

vanilla custard with a twist

vanilla bean, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I thought I could make custard.
There's something deeply comforting about custard. Warm. Smooth and easy, with a lovely cling that makes you curl your tongue over the top of your mouth to catch the last taste. A sunny yellow, with the depth of the unexpected. Sugary, but not too much so. Spoon-fed goodness. An unassuming assurance that everything will be fine.
No one would ever open an expensive restaurant in Manhattan, dedicated only to custard. It's never going to win the rave reviews of those dedicated to nouvelle cuisine or Gourmet magazine. Instead, I always imagine custard being made by sturdy British nannies with capable hands who soothe and instruct at the same time. You know, the ones of our mythical British childhoods, from our favorite children's books, the ones that embedded images of the way the world should be, deeply. I imagine that Christopher Robin ate a lot of custard.
Of course, it's mostly a dessert for a rainy day, in my mind. Muddled January skies, grey slating down continually, or the sidewalks covered in another day of slush--these are the times for custard. Here in Seattle, in September, the skies are lingering into blue, playing with us into thinking that it's still summer. In fact, there's a bit of a haze in the air, because it hasn't rained in days. You'd think that I'd be longing for crisp salads with white balsamic vinaigrette or Chilean sea bass with a fennel sauce. And in fact, I am. I'm having both for dinner tonight. But I was letting creamy milk, flecked with vanilla bean, warm as I started to write this last night.
Why? Well, I needed a little comfort last night. Yesterday was the first day of school. I love teaching. I really do. I'd write more about it here, all the individual stories, the connected conversations, the moments of hilarity. But last year, I fell into a bit of trouble (a spot of bother, as Pooh might say) for writing about my school life on another blog I kept. So I shut that down and decided to shut my mouth here about my school. Shame, really, because it is an enormous part of my life. But it's also good to step away from it and keep up this passion, keep this separate from my teaching life.
Still, this was the first day of school. We've been suffering under meetings for days, with no students in the building. I've missed them. On Monday, I saw some of the seniors, and I was looking forward to seeing those hallways bustling with teenagers again, in their first-day-of-school outfits, a little bit older, a lot more talkative than they were in June. There's something very sweet about the first day of school. I looked forward to it.
On Monday night, I lay out my clothes and packed my lunch and set up the coffee pot so that all I would have to do is press the button to turn it on in the morning. I sat up too late writing, but that's a hard habit to break. I set my alarm, dutifully, then tried to sleep, fitfully. But finally, I did. When I woke up this morning, the grey light peeked through my eyelids, and I struggled to wake up. In mists of that nether region twixt dream and awake, I swum for several minutes. And then I sat upright and stared at the alarm clock. "6:46?!?" My alarm had not gone off. (A few minutes later, I realized I had set it for 6 pm, which must have been a separate, cruel mind at work.) I was supposed to be up at 6. The bus was going to be leaving at 7:05. I had 19 minutes. Thank goodness I had been geeky enough to lay out my clothes the night before. (And it was my black, pinstripe suit, so I fooled everyone into thinking I had spent time getting ready.)
I ran to the kitchen, slammed on the coffee pot, throw a piece of gluten-free bread in the toaster, rinsed my face, put on my contacts, sloshed some coffee in a cup, sipped it, put the rest in my travel mug, found my shoes, threw some makeup in my bag, and still had enough time to get online and post yesterday's essay. (I know. I'm a little amazed myself.) And I made the bus.
It broke down on 3rd Avenue, so I was ten minutes later than I was supposed to be. Luckily, it was the melee of the first day of school, so no one noticed.
And it was good to be back in the building, to see all my students, to slip into that comfortable role again, fairly quickly. But by the time I returned home, I was thrash tired, I had a headache, and I couldn't believe I have to do it all again tomorrow. I needed a nap. And then I needed some custard.
(Also, Elise at Simply Recipes is hosting a custard contest. So I had to.)
Even though I was tired, it felt good to slip back into the summer self, the one who deliberates over cookbooks instead of how to introduce 11th-grade curriculum. The one who splays out recipes before her, mulling over which one to follow, instead of looking at all the juniors and trying to imagine grading their papers. The one who writes phrases describing custard, instead of prompts for analytical essays. I came home.
The problem with cooking custard is that everyone--and I mean everyone--has a different recipe. They all involve eggs and some kind of milk. Other than that, anything goes. And of course, custard could mean a thin custard sauce to pour on top of treacle pudding (the kind that Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver espouse) or thick, baked custard, put in the oven in a separate pan of water. And there's creme brulee, which relies on custard, and custard tarts, which rely on pastry, and curried custard, which isn't even sweet. I must have looked at forty recipes, but none of them seemed quite right. Or quite familiar. Everything, from Epicurious to Chez Panisse cookbooks, offered sophisticated variations on the theme. But no one held the basic note for me, long and clear, so I could hear it well.
So I improvised. I used the basic recipe from this Northwest cook (I like to highlight the recipes of this area), plus the boiling-a-vanilla-bean-pod-in-the-cream suggestion from Nigella Lawson. Plus, I like ginger, so I thought I'd throw some ginger in there. I slow simmered the cream and half and half as I talked on the phone to one of my best friends. Music played in the background, and when I hung up the phone, I switched to NPR. My printer inexplicably wouldn't work, so I was running back and forth between my computer in the corner and the front burner on the stove. It was a bit chaotic, but it smelled good. How bad could it be?

stirring the custard
I totally botched it.
I should have seen it coming. I wasn't truly paying attention, and nothing good comes from that. I didn't have enough of either cream or half and half to make the entire recipe, so I used a mixture of both. While the Kitchen-Aid was twirling, I opened up the fridge and found I was one egg short, so I just used what I had. I don't even know if I should have been using the Kitchen-Aid. I don't own any ramekins, so I used my deep-dish pie plate. When I put that into the roasting pan, half filled with water, the water rose over the top of the pie plate, and the liquidy custard spilled over. Rapid-fire, I poured it into a 9 by 13 pan instead, then shoved it into the roasting pan and pushed it into the oven. Away with ye. It baked and baked, but it never set. I checked it at 25 minutes. Gelatinous. I opened the oven at 50 minutes. Jiggly. At an hour and a half, the top was brown but the entire mess just wouldn't set. I took it out of the oven in disgust and put it out on the counter.
Meri, who came over to sample the custard experiment, said, "Come on. This is the first food you've made in the last five months that hasn't been spectacular." Maybe. It tasted good--it's hard to go totally wrong with cream, eggs, and sugar--but it just looked wretched. I faltered in my cooking duties.
I could have used a sturdy British nanny at that moment.
But more importantly, I began to realize, I had forgotten to really participate in it. In my rush to prove to myself, and everyone out there reading, that I could go back to school and still write every day!cook custard for the first time!be brilliant at this all the time!, I forgot to slow down and really enjoy this. Before the custard came out of the oven, Meri told me what her Dominican grandmother used to say: "The only essential ingredient in custard is a good mood." My mood curdled the custard.
Lesson learned.
What I love most about cooking is being in the moment of it. The chopping, the sauteeing, the checking of the recipe, the smelling of the rising steam, the first exquisite taste--it's a deeply meditative act for me. It's about being present. When I'm cooking in my kitchen, I'm not thinking about anything else. Except last night, when I was too focused on the goal to enjoy the faltering steps.
And then I fell flat on my face.
But I have to admit, I love a good pratfall more than most people do. And one of the first guidelines I gave my new students this morning is, "Allow yourself to make mistakes. That's how you learn." We all have to experiment, trip, and stand up again. It helps me to laugh through it. There's a comfort in that humbling process, more comfort than a custard could provide. And especially in learning to make great gluten-free foods, I have to fall on my face once in awhile. For those of you reading who must eat gluten-free, who may be relatively new to the kitchen, be patient. It takes a lot of cooking before you're truly comfortable. And even then, you make mistakes. You should know that I'm not perfect. And I only take pictures of the good-looking ends of the food (like this photograph of the custard).

And besides, this morning. I had a big bite of the cold custard. Sloppy, jiggling in the bowl instead of calmly resting, broken and imperfect--it tasted divine. Creamy goodness.
A deep comfort.

UPDATE: Elise has posted the round-up on her website. My goodness she is fast! And those other custards look gorgeous!

A MEANINGFUL CUSTARD, from Greg Atkinson

Well, just because I botched this custard doesn't mean you can't make a fabulous one with this recipe. If you do, let me know!

The simplicity of baked custard demands that the ingredients be of the very highest quality. Take time to seek out the best organic cream, eggs and sugar. Compare brands to find the ones you like best.

1 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 large free-range eggs
2 yolks from free-range eggs
1/2 cup turbinado sugar or pure maple sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
Freshly grated nutmeg, optional

1.Put six custard cups in a baking dish, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, stir the milk and cream until the liquid is steaming hot but not boiling.

3. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, sugar and salt. You may wish to slip in the vanilla and nutmeg as well.

4. Whisk about two cups of the steaming hot milk into the egg mixture, then stir all of the egg mixture into the remaining milk in the saucepan. Stir gently until well combined, then transfer the custard to the custard cups.

5. Pour water around the cups in the baking pan to reach halfway up the sides of the cups. Cover the cups with aluminum foil and bake 25 to 30 minutes, or just until the custard is set. Chill the custard before serving.


At 12:18 PM, Blogger tara said...

Whew! After all of that, I'm so happy to hear that you had a sweet reward. I especially liked the mention of Chrisopher Robin :) I'm assuming it was not enough proteins to set the custard? Any ideas?

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice, very nice. I really appreciate your writing and your pictures

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Nic said...

I think that all you can ask is that it tastes good. I had a little key lime pie incident like that over the weekend (ugly, but tasty).
But speaking of Manhattan, there's a place in NY that only serves rice pudding called Rice to Riches: So perhaps expensive custard shops will be spreading!

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Peggy said...

Even though it didn't set, it still sounds yummy. And it could've been a pretty good sauce for gluten-free pumpkin bread.

At 7:55 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Sorry to hear it didnt set up! It looks very good though! I love how you write up these entries!

At 4:13 AM, Blogger kitchenmage said...

Some days you need to reread Like Water for Chocolate and contemplate what it means if you cry in the soup. Or stress over the custard. smile I've long said that I do my best baking by candlelight with live music and I swear it's true. I think the dancer in me takes over my body while the cook takes over the food-related actions, my brain goes somewhereElseEntirely and life is good.

Try the same recipe again one drizzly Saturday, with muic that makes your spirit soar and a book on the counter to read during the lulls. Bet it's better.

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Cerebrum said...

It happens to all of us - you just know how to write it up so that it makes perfectly sense that we have to wreck things up once in a while.

Thanks for stopping by my blog - I've been lurking around here for a while, admiring your gorgeous photos and lovely writing, but it's always so hard to post that first comment, or is that just me?? We need another de-lurking day, soon!:-)

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Ruth Daniels said...

Can't believe how in sync we are. I just came from the kitchen where I failed at TWO different custard recipes. One seems to have curdled and the other won't set at all.

I think I still will write about it though, since you were brave (and funny) enough to share.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Shauna said...


I have to say I was happy when I thought of the Christopher Robin reference as well. I have no idea what happened, in actual terms, with that custard. Probably not enough eggs. But I really think it was because I wasn't present enough to coax it to set!


Thank you, I'm glad you like them. Sounds like you had a similar experience with your chocolate chip cookies. (Hint? Just splurge and use butter. Nothing beats the taste.) And welcome to the blog world!


Thank you, my dear. I'm glad to hear that even you have baking imperfections sometimes! And that Rice to Riches site is unbelievable! I think I'm going to have to add an addendum to this post with that one.


What a good idea. I didn't even think of saving it for a sauce. Probably for the best. I don't need a custard made of real cream, half and half, and eggs just sitting in my refrigerator. Especially when I would feel bad serving it to anyone else!


Thank you. I love what you're doing over there on your blog. It's okay--if the custard had been perfect, it wouldn't have yielded the essay I wrote.


What a wise and lyrical piece of advice. I love the image of you cooking by candlelight with music going. I almost always have music on, but that day I listened to the news instead. I'm done with that! I love your comments. Keep them coming.

Zarah Maria--

I'm happy to visit your webiste any day! Please, always feel comfortable here. I'm so glad to see your comment!


Phew! If you couldn't set up the custard perfectly, I feel much better now! (Everyone should go over to check out Ruth's strawberry and lavender muffins, by the way.)

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always think that cooking and skiing have a lot in common - if you don't fall on your face every now and then you probably aren't really stretching yourself - or at least not much. And that's okay if that's what you want! But for those of us trying to broaden our horizons snow up the nose is inevitable now and then! :-)

~ B

At 6:23 AM, Blogger Elise said...

The good news is that the custard tasted great, right? I'm always blowing it - curdling things that shouldn't curdle, making custard soup instead of pudding, etc. Great comment by Culinary Fool - if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough and stretching your capabilities. Beautiful photo of the vanilla bean, btw. Thanks for participating!

At 8:25 PM, Blogger Shauna said...


Good comment. I believe in physical activities as a metaphor for life. But I've never been skiing before, and I don't think that this custard experience is any indication that I should!


Aboslutely, the custard tasted great. And I'm determined to try again. I fall all the time, and I'm usually laughing at myself. And thank you for hosting!


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