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The Custard Returns!

Hi, all, and welcome to May! It’s finally here! It’s here already! Whichever way you want to look at it, I’m glad it’s here. The daffodils have largely given way to tulips and hyacinths, with apple blossoms fast approaching. Lawns have been mowed, filling the overcast air with the scent of screaming grass, and the occasional warm day invites all to venture outside without a coat and mittens.

It might not be happening as quickly as the end of winter in Narnia, but spring has come!

As you are probably well aware by now, I’m working on developing recipes as part of a worldbuilding project for my current story, Falconsbane. A few weeks ago we discussed pie dough, which was – I thought – fascinating. I’d chosen that because 1) handpies are the MC’s favorite food, and 2) I was super excited to get my hands into some wholesome ingredients. Today I’m returning with another recipe. You guessed it: custard. Now, I’ve already written a bit on the subject (right here, if you’re interested) but that discussion was inconclusive. I have since LEARNED some things.

To give a bit of background, custard is a dish – mainly dessert, but if you’ve ever eaten quiche, you’ve eaten a non-dessert custard – made of three primary components: milk, eggs, and sugar. It varies in consistency from a soupy sauce to a firm, American pudding-like cream typically piped into things like eclairs and cream puffs. My experience with custard is largely with the later (boy, have I made mountains of cream puffs . . .) The difference in consistency is due to the addition of, volume, or lack thereof of starch, primarily flour or corn starch. Adding starch not only thickens the mixture, but it also allows you to cook the eggs to a higher temperature without scrambling them, wherein you wind up with a pot of sweet scrambled egg soup. Not especially bad, but not exactly the aim of the game.

So! Why custard?

Well, I guess I’m rather fond of milk-based yums like ice cream, American pudding, and Russian cream. I can’t give a more in-depth answer than that. It was just sort of a thing as I was writing, a sweet sauce that my MC dipped his pies in. So of course I had to try my hand at it, and of course it couldn’t be as simple as copying the recipe I normally use.

Where would the fun be in that?

Right off I knew there were a couple specifics I wanted to keep in mind:

  1. Whole ingredients (raw milk, raw honey, fresh eggs – the works. These things taste different than today’s commercial products, and I want to get down a real, authentic flavor.)
  2. This particular recipe was developed by a military chef, a guy who loves his food but also has to cook for a couple hundred men on a daily basis. It had to be pretty basic and simple.

This in mind, I settled on a stovetop custard. I didn’t want to mess around with oven temperatures and ban maries. Nor did I really want to go about the business of separating eggs. Sure, it’s fine when you’re only doing a pair, but multiply that by two, three hundred? That’s a lot of eggs to separate, and a lot of whites to figure out what to do with (besides, it’s wasted protein!) Neither I nor my chef are too keen on that.

I did try it, though. Not four hundred, mind, just a couple, testing a basic custard recipe. I opted for a more traditional custard and not a pastry cream, which has starch. For one, corn starch isn’t a thing in the environment I’m working with. Corn isn’t even a thing.

Wrap your brain around that.

Of course, there are other starches out there. Wasn’t too keen on flour. Fresh ground flour, the sort that they’d be using in Elbyrk’s kitchen, isn’t like store-bought all-purpose. Not even similar to store-bought whole wheat. So what about potato starch? I gave some serious thought about medieval methods of obtaining potato starch, but didn’t think it really fit in with the cultural niche I had in mind.

But what about regular old potatoes? I mean, what was wrong with a potato custard? It’s basically mashed potatoes with eggs and sugar, right?

Wrong. Not the same animal. Not the right flavor. So I searched the catacombs of the great Interwebs to see if anyone else had come up with a potato custard. And there it hit me.

Sweet potatoes.

I don’t know why, but sweet potatoes hadn’t crossed my mind until that moment. I’ve even eaten sweet potato pie before, with pureed sweet potatoes added to the milk, eggs, and sugar to make a custard. It just never occurred to me to use it as a base for my own bookish version.

I thought, “THIS. IS. IT.” Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet and delicious, lending themselves so much better to confectionary uses than ye olde spud. What’s even better is that sweet potatoes fall into the climate green zone for growing.

I tried it.

It’s different.

Sweet potato custard, at least the recipe I tried as a base to go off of, tasted a wee bit like butterscotch. Although that might have been the buttery cream I added. Boy did that stuff stick to your lips.

But you know what? I didn’t want to stick with just your average orange sweet potato. I found PURPLE sweet potatoes. Not only do I have a fascination for purple food and want to eat all the purple things, I also thought it might add a little more uniqueness to the dish. It took a bit of finagling, but I got my hands on purple sweet potatoes and gave it a shot. Interesting to note: they taste like sweet potatoes. Cooked up, they’re a gorgeously deep purple. Mixed with eggs in a custard, they turn an eerie gray with a hue of bruised flesh.

In a word: unappetizing. Reminds me exactly of a batch of frosting I tried coloring purple at work. It never made it onto a cookie. Tasted fine, with a splash of homemade almond extract, but not exactly something I’d serve outside of a Halloween party. At least now I know. You can roast ’em, toast ’em, stick ’em in a stew. But turn ’em into custard and they just look eww.

Good ol’ fashioned orange taters it is, then.

What I’m loving about this basic recipe is how versatile it is. I can change its consistency just by how much milk or cream I add after cooking it. And while the original calls for just yolks, I made it using whole eggs with satisfactory results. The only thing left to do was toss in a bit of Phennish flair (currently undisclosed flavor?) and voila! A yummy stovetop custard that’s simple, easy, and (bonus) super quick. Not to mention good for you (double score).

Do you have any bookish recipes that you’ve tried? That you’ve wanted to try? Once upon a time I made Shrimp’n’ Hotroot Soup from my Redwall cookbook, and more recently a friend cooked up Mandalorian Stew for me (which was so good, I went back for seconds!) What’s a food you’ve read about, but haven’t found a recipe for?

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