Saturday, May 24, 2014
Call me an old fart, but I would hazard a guess that many cooks today have no idea what custard is, let alone have made any. British readers, assuming there are any, know about custard sauce, which I suspect is made from a dry mix, but nobody in America even eats custard anymore.
Custard is a dessert made from eggs, sugar and milk. In the 1920s, 30s and even into the 40s, it was fed to small children and the elderly. It was supposed to be nutritious and easy to digest. The nutritious part was probably true. Milk contains vitamin D and calcium. Eggs contain protein. As far as the easy to digest part, I can't say, never having had any issues with digestion. When I was a kid, homemade custard was supplanted by Jello Pudding and Pie Mix. My mother had neither the time nor the inclination to stand over a stove stirring a custard for her little children. Beechnut baby food for her.
Irma Rombauer Becker devotes half a page in The Joy of Cooking to custard. There are two kinds, baked and cooked on top of the stove. Becker suggests always cooking top of the stove custards in a double boiler, a metal or glass mixing bowl set in a saucepan over boiling water. This method prevents the custard from cooking too quickly and scrambling the eggs. Becker, who is usually above the unexplained clichés of cooking (cook until done) (Huh?), uses a phrase that sets my teeth on edge, "cook until the mixture coats the back of a spoon." Well, this is completely unhelpful, given the fact that many custard based pie mixtures coat the back of a spoon as soon as they are placed on the stove. In my experience, these mixtures have to be cooked at a low heat (3.5 on a gas stove) for ten to twenty minutes. And yes, stirring constantly is necessary if you don't want to have a pan full of orange-flavored scrambled eggs. Stirring over low heat results in the creamy consistency we love in chilled pies.
My advice to a novice cook, or even someone who has plenty of cooking experience but has never made a custard before is to invest in a dozen eggs and make custard before attempting a fancy dessert for a party. Make it, eat it, and see how it turned out. If it isn't the way you want it, (watery, perhaps) try again and turn the heat down.
Once you have gotten past the custard, you have the ingredients. I got all the unusual ingredients at my local unusual store, Rodmans, on Wisconsin Avenue in DC, a combination gourmet food shop and electronics store. Almond macaroons are also known as amaretti, and can be purchased on the internet at www.CookiesFromItaly.com. Apparently there are two different kinds of ladyfingers in the world of cuisine, hard and soft. Hard come from Italy. They cannot be split in half, so if you get those, just smear the jelly on the outside of the ladyfingers. Soft are baked here. I have never noticed soft ladyfingers in my local Safeway. If one looks on the internet, apparently they are available at Walmart. That is not really a good reason to shop at Walmart, in my opinion, but what the hell.
The amaretti and the ladyfingers are sprinkled with dry sherry. Sherry is a wine from Spain that is a rich brown in color with a sophisticated taste. Do not, under any circumstances, buy cooking sherry. That is sold in the grocery store and has salt in it to make it undrinkable. You don't want salt in your fancy dessert, now do you? Go to the liquor store and invest $18 on a decent bottle of sherry, like Dry Sack or Gonzalez Byas. Then, when the weather gets cool in the fall, sit down in the evening and pour yourself a glass of sherry. You will be glad you did. One does not drink it with ice.
If you don't drink, leave it out. That is preferable to cooking sherry.
I churned this out in the morning for dinner with our friends, Rich and Mary Alice. They seemed to like it, and I sure did.
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/4 pound (four ounces) candied cherries
1/4 pound ladyfingers
1/4 cup tart currant or beach plum jelly
1/2 pound almond macaroons (amaretti)
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 1/2 teaspoons corn starch
1 1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place the almonds on a baking sheet and bake until they are toasted, stirring occasionally. Do not let them burn. Turn off oven and let almonds cool.
3. Chop the almonds and chop the candied cherries.
4. Split each ladyfinger in half and smear the split side with jelly. Arranged layers of jelly-smeared ladyfingers and the macaroons over bottom and side of a round glass mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the sherry.
5. Place the cornstarch in a saucepan and gradually add the milk, stirring with a wire whisk. Beat the eggs and add them along with half the sugar. Bring gently to a boil, stirring constantly, to make a custard. Do not cook over high heat or too long or the custard will curdle. Let cool and fold in chopped cherries.
6. Whip the cream and, before it is stiff, beat in the remaining sugar. Fold the whipped cream into the custard and pour the mixture into the prepared bowl. Chill. When ready to serve, sprinkle with chopped almonds.
Makes six servings.