Silky smooth, rich and indulgent, custard is the perfect antidote for our comfort and pleasure needs during winter.
Essentially – and simply – a mixture of milk and eggs thickened by heat, custard has long played a part in European cuisine. It borrows its name from the French word ‘crustade’, or tart crust, in which the custard was first baked during the Middle Ages. Since then, custard has crossed borders and morphed into many dishes. It can take the main stage and stand on its own, or assume a supporting role and subtly complement the main player; it can also be an unashamed classic or completely contemporary.
Custard falls into two basic categories – stirred (on the stove top) or baked (in the oven) – but eggs and gentle heat are the two constant and vital elements when it comes to custard-making, no matter which method is used.
Crème anglaise (or pouring custard) and its cousin crème pâtissière (or pastry cream), which is thickened and stabilised with flour or cornflour, are types of stirred custard. They form the basis of many French classics – refined mille-feuille, of-the-moment éclairs, and heavenly cream puffs – as well as English trifle, Boston cream pie, vanilla slice and custard doughnuts. All highly desirable, it must be said.
And then there is the baked version. In the egg-rich and uncomplicated category you’ll find the Spanish crème Catalan, French crème brûlée, English Trinity cream and pot de crème – or the classic baked custard, of course, that relies on no more than a balanced combination of ingredients and a gentle, forgiving heat. So eggs, milk and a water bath (or bain marie) are the essentials you need to create something unadorned but wonderfully simple and delicious.
Custard tarts are another proposition, and also survivors of the test of time. Portuguese custard tarts (or pastéis de nata) are one of my all-time favourites. Made with flaky pastry that is subtly spiced with cinnamon, they are filled with a custard traditionally made using a thermometer. My version is simpler and takes away the need for this extra kitchen utensil without compromising the deliciously rich custard filling.
Which brings me to my crème brûlée ginger tart – a modern twist on a classic that proves custard is not only the perfect partner for pastry but also a wonderful vehicle for creating sublime flavour combinations. And sometimes, stirred and baked custards come together beautifully in one pastry creation – my rhubarb and custard Danish being a perfect example.
And, finally, there are the not-so-obvious custard desserts. In a bread and butter pudding and the Queen of Puddings, the custard is soaked up by the bread before it is baked, creating a wonderfully comforting texture and providing a fabulous base for flavours like vanilla, chocolate and caramel. My sticky banana and pecan bread and butter pudding, which is amazing, even if I say so myself, is a great example of how this basic theme can be varied with delicious results. Another custard-based theme open for interpretation is baked rice pudding. My chai-spiced tapioca custard pudding is made in a similar way, but delivers something exotic as well as comforting with every spoonful. Just what we want when winter triggers our cravings for the sweet and creamy.
Anneka's custard recipes
Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. Read our interview with her or for hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O’Brien. Food preparation by Kerrie Ray. Creative concept by Lou Fay.
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