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On Custard

I’m not gonna lie ─ I like food. It fascinates me, and I enjoy learning the science behind it as much as I enjoy the hands-on preparation of it. The fact that cooking is just as much an art as a science makes it even better.

And then one day I was struck by the idea that I wanted to someday make a cookbook full of recipes from the stories that I write. How gob-smacking neat would that be? Redwall has a cookbook, so does Narnia, Harry Potter, Mitford, and probably a krumpet-ton of others. So why not I? It would, after all, be the perfect blend of two of my favorite things.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s conversation. Ever since I decided to pursue that goal and dove into the worldbuilding for Falconsbane (which is, so far, the main focus of my current efforts), I’ve been thinking. If you’ve read any of my previous posts about culture and trade, you’ll notice the lengths at which my train of thought has gone on the subject. I have been purposefully incorporating more food into this story for this reason. For worldbuilding. For love.

And for  my MC and his . . . issues.

Anyhoo, thinking about the kinds of food that would be in this world (and those that aren’t, which is equally as important, I’m finding) I’ve been trying to develop recipes and flavor profiles that would be authentic to the culture ─ which is, as it happens, as complicated as it sounds, and makes me wonder sometimes what I’ve gotten myself into.

So, to start, I chose custard. Why? Well, because it’s interesting. And because it comes up several times in the books. And we’re milking two Jerseys and are drowning in the stuff.

Now, in doing a wee bit of research, I discovered that custard, or at least the concept of custard, comes from all corners of the world, has a number of names based on ingredients, and can be prepared in several different ways. But let’s start with what custard actually is: a milk/cream based dish thickened with egg yolks, usually sweetened and flavored with vanilla, but is also sometimes savory, and varies in consistency. It is cousin to what most Americans call pudding (I say that because, if you ask an Englishman about pudding, you won’t be picturing the same thing. But that’s a study for a different day.)

Quiche, as it happens, is an example of a savory custard. Pumpkin pie is also, fundamentally, a custard. Éclairs and the like use pastry cream, which is ─ you guessed it ─ a custard, although starch is added to make it thicker than egg yolks could accomplish alone.

From the start I knew what I wanted for my own Phennish version of a custard (at least in the context I’m drawing from). I wanted it to be fairly simple, primarily that I could cook it on a stovetop without messing with casserole dishes and ban maries and whatnot. I also wanted it to be a ‘true’ custard, without thickeners like cornstarch ─ because things like corn and corn products aren’t produced or traded in Phen. I always find myself asking the question ‘How did they make this before [this modern product/method/tool]?’ And since custard dates back to at least Ancient Rome, it stands to reason that they knew how to accomplish this.

Which means eggs. It is, after all, a milk and egg based food. The thing about eggs, though, is that if you aren’t careful, your custard is going to taste like eggs. I think this is the main reason why so many custards are only made with the yolks, since the eggyness is in the whites. My search through the interwebs did turn up a recipe that uses whole eggs, which I thought would be ideal, but my first attempt ended poorly (as many first attempts do. I cooked it over too high a heat and wound up with scrambled eggs in milk, which is the danger with cooking custard. Heat exceeding 170-180 degrees F. will curdle egg whites, as it happens. Who knew?)

I tried another recipe that uses only egg yolks next, but that turned out a little thinner than I wanted (and it curdled again), so in the next attempt I added one egg white to the yolks, as well as adding some cream back into the milk and cooking it over about the lowest heat on the stovetop as I could manage.

It wasn’t curdled this time, but it took over an hour to thicken, and I seriously think that was due more to evaporation than setting eggs. It set up almost like pudding in the fridge, which I’m not complaining about, but the flavor wasn’t quite right.

Now, before you get excited and think I mastered the recipe: I haven’t. Yet. Abundance of ingredients aside, we can only eat so much custard at a time, but I am closer than I was when I started, and I am determined to keep trying and tweaking until I get what I’m looking for.


Have you tried any recipes from book cookbooks? What was it? How did it go?

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