This weekend, I will be breaking open another English staple that I always make sure to bring back from my green and pleasant isle: a pot of custard powder. I like ice cream and I don’t mind whipped topping but, to me, a hot dessert is incomplete without its custard.
As I’m sure that most people from this side of the ocean have never encountered custard on their travels, I can only say that, once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder what you ever did without it. Just as a burger should always have ketchup and salad is all wrong without dressing, an apple pie should never be served without its thick, yellow sauce.
In the old days, custard was a delicacy made by combining egg yolks, sugar and heavy cream. These days, we usually rely on a powder-based equivalent that can be made just like a gravy: add milk, stir until boiling and watch it thicken. My lot, as may have become clear over time, are rather keen on time-saving techniques.
To the French, custard is known as “crème anglaise,” which translates to “English cream.” To Crook County, I suspect it shall soon be known as, “what on earth is she talking about now?”
I’ve made real custard during my time here, though it eventually occurred to me that life would be easier with a pot of the good stuff to hand. But for the reader who requested I always include the recipe for my weird and wonderful concoctions: I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a true English custard served in this part of the world, so here goes.
If you would like to experience the joy of custard for yourself, you can do so as follows: heat a pint of cream in a heavy pan until it is just below simmering point, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to keep it from sticking. Meanwhile, whisk together six large egg yolks and a couple of tablespoons of sugar until frothy, along with a dash of vanilla extract. You can also include a tablespoon of cornflour to thicken the mixture if you so wish – everyone has their own opinions as to how runny a custard should be.
Pour the hot cream gradually over the yolks and then return the whole lot to the saucepan and heat gently until it thickens. You’ll need to be whisking the mixture constantly while you do so, else nasty lumps form in the batter. Serve immediately to accompany a hot dessert, or allow to cool if it is to be used as an ingredient in a cold treat – it will become even thicker in the process of cooling.
This delicacy can be served hot over treats such as apple pie, bread-and-butter pudding or fruit crisp. Any hot dessert, particularly the winter comfort kind, can benefit from a helping or two of custard.
You can also use custard to make its very own hot dessert: an egg custard tart. Simply pour the custard into a pastry case that has been baked blind for ten minutes, sprinkle a little nutmeg over the top and then cook it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes to set the custard. There is no need to serve this dessert with more custard as even I am prepared to admit that would be overkill.
You can also use custard to make a trifle, a traditional English dessert that was once all the rage at dinner parties and considered to be quite the fancy creation. As it’s the height of summer now and arguably too hot for a rhubarb tart, this might be a good place to start.
To make a trifle, layer lady finger cakes that have soaked in dry sherry or Madeira at the bottom of a glass bowl; top them with fruit such as raspberries, strawberries and bananas; cover everything with a layer of cooled custard; and finish off with thick, whipped cream and a sprinkling of almonds. If you make such a dessert, expect my father to turn up on the doorstep immediately with an expectant look on his face.
Talking of my father, there are few things in life that make him as happy as custard. Before my beloved grandfather passed away, it was one of the few things that could cause all-out war at the family dining table. For two perfectly jovial gentlemen who rarely had a cross word for anyone, things could turn nasty surprisingly quickly. This was because, as far as either of them was concerned, there was never enough custard to go round.
Custard is traditionally served with dessert at Christmas and to follow a Sunday roast – after all the meals, in fact, that one tends to gather for as a family. Though my mum or grandmother would attempt to stave off the rivalry by making at least a gallon of custard, neither my father nor granddad were willing to properly share.
Each would take a demure helping to go with their treacle sponge or lemon upside-down cake. They would then wolf the contents of their bowl down without really tasting it, eyeing one another across the table, because their true aim was to secure a full bowl of custard, all on its own – and whoever got there first was going to get the lion’s share. Heaven forbid that the rest of us took more than a splash for our own dessert bowls, because that was the quickest way to earn a growl and a glare from both of them.
While I don’t wish to inspire rivalry in anyone else’s family, I do think that custard ought to be integrated into American life. The desserts on offer here range from delicious to mouth-watering, but I’ve always felt that they’re missing the one final touch that makes mealtimes worthwhile.
May I therefore humbly suggest adding a jug of custard to your next family gathering. After all, if it turns out that you don’t like it after all, there’s really no need to worry – I know just the person who can help you make sure it doesn’t go to waste.