Friday, June 10, 2011

Creamy Custard

The ultimate beauty of custard is found in its simplicity – eggs, dairy, sugar, a bit of flavoring and not much else. But how you work with these ingredients makes all the difference in the world. If you’ve tried baking custard and have been less than thrilled with your results, you’ll want to try these techniques and see if you don’t fall in love with the melt-in-your-mouth texture and sublime flavor of these baked custards.

What makes custard such a desirable dessert is its velvety luxuriousness. Because one of the basic ingredients of custard is eggs, the silkiness of baked custard comes from controlling both the temperature of the mixture before it’s baked and during the baking process.

Shuna Lydon is a pastry chef known for her wonderful custards and her engaging personal and work life confessionals at her blog, Eggbeater. And now, lucky for us, she illustrates her method for perfect custard in a series of very short videos she shot with Food52. Shuna delivers a few indispensable procedures that will change your custards forever. You’ll learn why eggs need gentle and delicate prodding and how best to create a terrific finished product. I urge you to watch all of these fun and very informative short clips to see how simple it can be to improve your game.

Perfect Custard, part 1: Maximizing vanilla bean flavor, the ratio of cream to milk and the process of infusion. (1 minute, 50 seconds)
Perfect Custard, part 2: How to achieve great texture starting with a cold mixture and treating the eggs with complete care. (1 minute, 18 seconds)
Perfect Custard, part 3: Portioning with a scale for uniform baking. (1 minute, 6 seconds)
Perfect Custard, part 4: Steam and the proper bain marie technique for the very best baked custard. (1 minute, 16 seconds)
The Big Reveal, part 5: Tasting the final product (1 minute, 35 seconds) and a link to Shuna’s Butterscotch Pot de Crème.

So now that we’ve seen some of the techniques for producing the silkiest custard, it’s time to put it all to the test. This is my recipe for a basic but very delicious Vanilla Custard. It’s also a perfect medium for all kinds of variation. You can flavor it however you wish by infusing the cream with your favorite flavorings. My photos here are of a lime version I made by steeping the warm cream, milk and sugar mixture with lime zest.

I hope these lessons and suggestions contribute to perfect custards in your future!

Bench notes:

- In addition to vanilla custard, branch out and flavor with zest of lime, lemon or orange, whole or ground spices, fresh ginger, coffee beans, tea or your favorite fresh herbs (fresh bay leaf is nice; 1 leaf per cup of liquid). For citrus, I grind the zest with the sugar in a food processor to infuse the sugar with the citrus oils, then add this to the warm cream mixture. Steep as long as it takes to get the right concentration of flavor depending on what and how much you’re steeping.  Taste as you go to get the right strength. Strain before mixing with the egg yolks.
- Use the freshest cream, eggs and flavorings for the best possible results.
- Baking custard in a bain marie or water bath ensures slow and even baking.
- My recipe has the level of cream to milk ratio that I like. Vary according to your own taste and desired level of richness. Same applies to the measurement of sugar.
- I ran out of good professional plastic wrap as I was making this custard so I went with foil. Still got really luscious results. If you use foil, be VERY careful when lifting it up to check on the custards. Make sure you let the steam out in a direction away from you, wear an oven mitt or use tongs. Steam burns really do hurt.
- Sometimes using a large roasting pan for a water bath can feel a little unwieldy. When I’m making a larger recipe, I use two smaller pans and fit 3 - 4 ramekins in each. This makes it a lot easier to remove from the oven without splashing water into your custards and damaging all your careful work.
- Custards are best eaten the same day without refrigeration, although they will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator as long as there aren't any strong aromas lingering from other food items.

Creamy Custard
Makes 4 servings

1 1/4 C heavy cream
3/4 C whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 1/4 t vanilla extract
1/4 C sugar (add another 1 T sugar if flavoring with citrus zest, coffee, tea or herbs)
4 egg yolks
pinch of salt, to taste

Slice open vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the sugar. Work the vanilla seeds into the sugar with your fingers so they are evenly distributed. Place the vanilla sugar along with vanilla pod, cream and milk in a saucepan. Bring this mixture to a slow simmer. Take off the heat and infuse for about an hour.

Warm the cream mixture just until it feels warm to the touch. Do not simmer. Remove the vanilla bean pod and whisk egg yolks together. Gradually whisk warm cream into egg yolks and combine thoroughly. Whisk in salt, to taste. (Add the vanilla extract at this point, if using). Let the mixture cool completely in a bowl or container set in an ice water bath.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place four 4 oz ramekins or custard cups in a small roasting pan.

Ladle or pour custard into ramekins or custard cups. If you have a scale, use it to be sure each dish has an equal portion. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan so that it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Tightly wrap foil or plastic wrap over the roasting pan. Carefully set in the center of the oven.

Bake the custards until just set, about 35 – 40 minutes. When you tap a ramekin, the whole surface should jiggle a bit. The edges should not soufflé.

Remove foil or plastic carefully, avoiding the hot escaping steam by pulling the wrap so the steam escapes away from you and your hands. Remove the ramekins from water using an oven mitt or a pair of tongs and cool on a wire rack. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.


Bryan said...

your photos are great here! they capture the custard's simple exquisite qualities.
this recipe and method will be the perfect use for the lemon verbena i found at the farmer's market!

custards and pôts are great unadorned, but your balsamic cherry compote from last week could be a lovely accompaniment. cant wait to try it.

and Shuna is all kinds of awesome. i took a workshop with her a few years ago and it was really cool to learn from her. i love her aesthetic.


pastry studio said...

Oooh, I love lemon verbena! It makes an absolutely terrific custard or ice cream. Go Bryan!

Christine Covert said...

Mouthwatering photos. Might I also add that the fresher the eggs the tastier the results. Even the best of cage free, hormone free, antibiotic free, organically fed chicken eggs found at the supermarket are usually months old. Once you've eaten "real" eggs, you'll go out of your way to keep using them. Thanks, pastry studio!

Heather Smoke said...

That's a great post and wonderful tips, thank you! I can't wait to make some lemon custard and serve it with fresh berries. How would you incorporate a flavor like caramel?

pastry studio said...

Hi Heather Smoke.! If I were to integrate caramel into the custard, I'd bring the sugar to a boil with a couple of tablespoons of water and let it get to a medium dark amber, then immediately add warm milk and cream that has been steeped with the vanilla. It will bubble and sputter vigorously but just stir until the caramel is dissolved. Then proceed with the recipe as written, whisking the cream caramel mixture into the beaten eggs, etc.

Lemon custard with berries also sounds terrific!

Sharon T said...

Hi P.S.! Work has been crazy and I've been away from your blog. So glad I checked in. Right now I am fussing with custards at work because we lost our only non-convection oven. Now I'm trying to bake pots de creme in a convection oven. I keep them covered with parchment and foil but they are suffering. I will definitely be trying the plastic wrap so I can check on their progress without releasing the steam. I'm using a low temp (275) and have the fan turned to low. Do you have any other ideas? Thanks so much!

pastry studio said...

Sharon T, that's a tough situation. I've never had to deal with this but I think if you use shallower dishes that may help to shorten baking time but you're probably still going to have a bit of a funky surface. And maybe try more water in the bain marie? Wish I could be of help to you. Hope you find a way to make it work!!

Sharon T said...

Thanks P.S. I wish I had shallower dishes to use, but alas that is not the case. Keeping my fingers crossed that plastic wrap makes a difference. Oh and you are a help to me, it just helps having someone to bounce ideas off of. Thank you!

Anna said...

I really appreciate the photography in this post. The picture of the eggs is stunning. Food deserves to look as beautiful as it tastes.


Jeff Vanderbilt said...

This looks awesome! I'm totally going to make it. I just love the
texture of custard!