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Custard in a New Light

Who says it has to be sweet? Free the custard!

November 01, 2000|THOMAS KELLER and MICHAEL RUHLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When we think of custards, the first things that come to mind are sweets--creme bru^lee, creme caramel and other dessert puddings. But push it in the opposite direction with savory flavors, and you've freed the custard for countless unusual and exciting preparations.

Whether it's sweet or savory, a well-made custard is almost universally appealing because it combines two emotional responses that rarely come together in a single bite: childhood comfort and adult luxury. As children, some of our favorite things to eat were puddings. But a properly cooked custard is also voluptuous--pure satin luxury. Combine these two components and the custard is far too valuable to be relegated to an end-of-the-meal sweet.

The custard's texture is the key to its greatness, and perfect texture results from perfect cooking technique. The most common mistake people make in baking a custard is not putting enough water in the hot-water bath. The water should come up to the level of the custard inside the cups. You must protect your custard from the heat.

Other points of importance are these:

* Always work with hot liquids--don't flavor the liquid then let it cool before you add the eggs and cook it. The liquid should go into the oven already hot.

* Bring the water for the water bath to a light simmer on top of the stove before adding it to the baking dish.

* If cooking custards in a metal pan, cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of newspaper to ensure an even temperature on the bottom; if using glass, this should not be necessary.

* Cover it all with professional-quality plastic wrap or foil.

* The cooking time will depend largely on the size of the custard, but begin checking at a half-hour and check back regularly. When the center of the custard is just set, it will jiggle a little when shaken. That's when you can remove it from the oven. It can be chilled if it will be served cold.

Custards are almost infinitely flexible, once you've mastered the basic recipe. A custard infused with tarragon might be paired with diced orange (orange and anise being a traditional pairing) for a bright opening course.

Flavored with truffle oil (and bits of chopped truffle if you wish), a custard becomes a striking garnish for any number of soups from pea to potato.

As winter approaches and we begin to eat heartier fare, custards are especially satisfying. You might think, then, to flavor the custard with bone marrow and serve it as a garnish for a grilled filet mignon.

You can take the custard even further by exchanging part of the milk and cream with a flavorful broth or vegetable juice.

The custard is about more than just technique. It represents a way of thinking about food. View the custard recipe as a ratio of ingredients, and the results are limited only by your imagination.

Custard Master Recipe

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 50 minutes

This recipe can be varied by different flavorings.

6 tablespoons milk

6 tablespoons whipping cream

1/4 cup flavoring

1 egg

Salt

White pepper

* Heat milk and cream in saucepan over medium-low heat. Just when it boils, remove from heat. Turn on blender to lowest speed and add milk-cream mixture, then flavoring. With blender running, add egg. When thoroughly blended, season with salt and white pepper to taste and strain through fine-mesh strainer into pitcher or glass measuring cup. Set aside for several minutes, then skim foam that rises to top.

* Pour into 4 (2-ounce) custard cups. If foam or bubbles remain on top, skim them off. Place custards in large pan or glass baking dish (if using a metal pan, cover bottom with newspaper). Pour boiling water into pan so that it rises just above the level of the custards in the dishes.

* Cover dish with plastic wrap and bake at 250 degrees about 30 minutes. Check custards by removing plastic and jiggling. When just set--meaning custard will jiggle but is no longer pourable--remove from oven. Refrigerate if serving cold. Set aside until ready to serve if serving warm.

Flavorings:

Shallot Custard--Use about 1/4 cup cooked, minced vegetable for every 3/4 cup liquid. In this case, gently caramelize 1/2 cup shallots in dry non-stick pan. Add to hot milk along with egg, puree and strain before baking. Serve this with more caramelized shallots as a canape course or as a garnish for onion soup.

4 servings. Each serving: 113 calories; 112 mg sodium; 95 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Custard--Add 2 tablespoons very good quality extra-virgin olive oil to liquid along with egg, puree and strain before baking. Serve with Nicoise olive tapenade.

4 servings. Each serving: 172 calories; 112 mg sodium; 95 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0 fiber.

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