Cold comfort

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My first assumptions about comfort food: 1) warm 2) starchy 3)bland. Why? Maybe thinking about what I think would comfort others, maybe things I would offer someone needing comfort. Except, I wouldn’t. “You look sad, let me make you some nice mashed potatoes…” No. I would make you a cup of tea or pour you a nice tot of rum or whiskey or brandy if there were any left. But the question is out there, waiting – what is my comfort food? What thing do I love to eat, and love to make, and always wish it were available and waiting for my spoon?

When I was a young teenager and had my after-school and Saturday job at my small town’s weekly newspaper ($2.10/hour during the Nixon/Ford wage freeze Whip Inflation Now era), I found my comfort in a white-lined can at the grocery: egg custard. I couldn’t tell you the brand, just that it was there with the pie fillings, and I bought it once on a whim and was hooked. The sweet egginess; the texture: not pudding, not jello, both yet neither; the hint of nutmeg; how it could plop complete with ridges intact from the can (something I still love about cranberry sauce). I lived on this, and pizza, pineapple milkshakes from DQ, and pounds of Thomson seedless grapes, for a year.

I went off to college in another state, where the grocery did not carry canned custard. We lost touch.

Years later, I was in Australia, rummaging in a grocery and found, to my delight and in the refrigerator case, custard in a paper milk carton. I ate bowls of it for breakfast. My local colleagues were appalled; it was a sauce, for dessert, to pour over crumble or fruit. You DON’T eat it straight! But I was reunited with an old friend, happy, though its form had changed somewhat, more puddingish and less firm but still sweet eggy goodness. I was determined to learn to make it for myself, so I’d never be at the grocery’s whim again.

After countless hours with a faux double-boiler and failed attempts that were basically sweet scrambled eggs, I somewhere fell upon a recipe for baked custard. It’s so flexible. You can use 1 egg/cup of milk or 4 eggs/cup of milk, less sugar, more sugar, brown sugar, powdered milk if it’s all you’ve got, or whole milk with some added cream. The only constants are a slow oven and a bain marie. Make up 2 ramekins. It will keep for days in the fridge, ready for your spoon.

4 or more eggs (or, just yolks)

4 cups milk

1/3rd to 2/3rds cup sugar

1-2 tsp vanilla

1/4 tsp salt

a pinch of ground nutmeg

Heat the oven to 300 deg F.

Beat the eggs well in a large bowl. Beat in the milk. Stir in the sugar, vanilla, and salt, mixing until everything is dissolved.

Pour the mixture into 2 4-cup ceramic ramekins, or bowls or a casserole. Whatever you use, it needs to fit in the larger pan that will be your bain marie (water bath). Sprinkle a pinch of nutmeg on the top of the mixture. Put the filled ramekins into the bain marie pan, slide the whole thing carefully into the oven, then cautiously pour hot water into the bain marie pan to within 1″ of the top of the ramekins. Bake for an hour, or maybe 2 hours. It will depend on the shape and number of your ramekins. When the center of the custards look just solidly wiggly, carefully take the whole contraption out of the oven and remove the ramekins to cool on racks. After they’ve cooled somewhat, cover and refrigerate.

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One Response to “Cold comfort”

  1. Sarita Says:

    I remember your victorious encounter. That’s good stuff, what you cooked. It was in the fridge a lot 🙂

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