Perhaps I have custard to blame for my vocation. In the era I grew up it was one of the first solid foods given to babies. My mother’s egg custard is one of my earliest sense memories and it made a big impression. Slightly sweet the taste was probably reminiscent of mother’s milk but the delicate, creamy texture was new and so was that curious whiff of cooked eggs. Custard was fun to eat, the first time a new mouth with no teeth learned there was more to do with food than just swallow it. It got my attention, paving the way for bigger, stronger flavors that would soon follow. Custard is still my favorite comfort food. It’s also easy to make and pretty hard to top in the elegance department.
Today, in the depths of winter when fresh ingredients are sparse and my hens aren’t laying I pulled an egg, some chicken stock, sheep’s milk and a few peas from the freezer to make these savory custards for dinner.
Custard Flan with Truffle and PeasOur chickens are multi-purpose breeds fed a natural diet and they almost never produce an egg a day. When they do, they all lay together, and then they “lay off” together too. One of our hens averages just 40 to 50 extraordinary eggs a year and I often have to make an egg go a very long way. When I have surplus eggs I freeze them to use later for baking and custards.
Custard is a lovely way to stretch an egg. From one egg its possible to get three or four servings which can be seasoned in infinite ways. We cook them in these individual egg coddlers that go straight to the table.
The formula is a simple one, and you can make it your own using whatever ingredients you have available.
How to do it
The Custard Base
Place one large egg in the beaker of a hand blender and add 100 grams of liquid. (For me this is usually half chicken stock and half sheep’s milk). Add about a tablespoon of grated Parmesan (or ricotta or pecorino) and a pinch of salt. Whiz these ingredients together for your base.
This formula produces a light, delicate flan. Sheep’s milk is much richer than cows milk so if you are using that add a little cream to your mix. Experiment to discover the texture you like best by varying the ratios of the liquid you use.
If you wish, you can add herbs or spices and other ingredients to your custard, but I suggest limiting these to keep your flavors pure. In the spring I might lay a couple of spears of lightly steamed asparagus or a few green peas or fave beans in the bottom of each coddler before pouring the base over. In summer maybe its some basil and diced zucchini. Or some thyme and green beans or a little tomato confit. In winter, when we kill our pigs, a little fresh sausage, burista (blood pudding) or a thin slice of capofreddo (head cheese) is nice. Or try a few dried porcini or morels that have been rehydrated in the stock, or some a teaspoon full of steamed squash and a crumbled roasted chestnut..
For an Asian touch season your stock with a little lemon juice and ginger (or green curry or lemon grass) and poach a chicken breast in it to use as the extra ingredient for your flan. Or use shrimp. Dashi could replace the chicken stock and coconut milk the dairy. Garnishes might include thinly sliced scallions, pickled ginger or fresh coriander. You get the picture. The variations are endless.
The Dessert Custard
Sometimes we reverse the order of things and turn our custard into dessert. To do this, we use 100 grams of our sheep’s milk for every large egg (you can use a combination of cow’s milk, cream or coconut milk). Heat the milk first and sweeten it to taste with honey. In the summer I steep fresh herbs (like verbena, mint or lavender) in the milk before straining and once it’s cool I whiz the egg in with a hand blender. In the cooler months try steeping warming spices like vanilla, cinnamon or dried orange peel. A little poached quince or applesauce is nice in the bottom of the coddler. To lighten things up think of replacing some of the milk (or cream) with espresso or Earl Grey tea. Or stir some melted chocolate into the milk. When the custard is finished you might want to sprinkle sugar on top and torch it for a brûlée.
We cook custard flans in their individual covered coddlers in our steam oven for about 20 minutes at 100 Celsius/100% humidity. Or you can bake them in a bain-marie for 20 minutes at 150 degrees Celsius or until they are still a little wobbly and barely set. If you don’t have egg coddlers, use individual ramekins tightly covered with foil.