Vanilla Custard

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Custard is one of those desserts that I forget about. It is sublime in its simplicity – milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla. We didn’t have custard that often when I was growing up, but I always loved it. My mom and grandma made custard pretty much the same way – not too sweet, not too rich and always topped with ground nutmeg before they baked it. That is what custard is to me – plain, simple and delicious.

I decided to try making custard last week during our Colorado vacation. It was a rainy afternoon and we had all the ingredients on hand. I didn’t have my recipe with me, so I trolled the internet until I looked at enough recipes to decide on a ratio of eggs to milk to sugar. In my in-laws’ less-than-stocked kitchen I had to improvise for both custard cups and a water bath. Coffee cups stood in for ramekins, with the overflow going into a serving bowl that was oven safe. The custards baked up just fine, despite the high altitude and the less-than ideal baking vessels.

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Rich’s parents and I were happy, though they didn’t have any nutmeg, so I had to make do with cinnamon. Rich has never liked custard that much – he prefers his desserts to have more substance, and more chocolate. Calvin wasn’t impressed either. They are both requesting chocolate almond custard. I expect you will be seeing a recipe for that sometime soon.

I made another batch of custard once we got home to make sure I could replicate the results. I can’t say that it was really much better than the improvised custard we had on vacation. But I got to use ground nutmeg on top. It brought back a true taste of childhood. Rich and Calvin still aren’t fans, but that leaves more for me.

Download or print recipe here.

Vanilla Custard
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 4-6 servings

Use any kind of milk you have on hand – the richer the milk, the richer the custard. This is not a sweet dessert. You can increase the sugar to ½ cup if you like, with no other changes to the recipe. Or sprinkle sugar on top when serving for added sweetness and crunch.

2 cups milk
4 eggs
⅓ cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
dash salt
nutmeg or cinnamon
sugar, for serving (optional)

Equipment:
Custard cups or ramekins
9 by 13 inch baking pan, or equivalent
boiling water for a water bath

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot or teakettle of water to a boil and keep hot. Lightly grease 4-6 custard cups or small ramekins. I used 6 ounce custard cups and needed five of them. Set ramekins in a 9 by 13 inch baking pan or other pan large enough to hold them without crowding. Set aside, preferably near the oven.

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Heat milk in a 2-3 quart saucepan over medium heat until very hot. Milk will be steaming and there will be bubbles all around the edges when it is hot enough. Don’t let it boil. Stir occasionally at the beginning and more often as it gets hotter. It should take 5-7 minutes to get hot enough, depending on your stove and the size of your pan. The larger the pan, the faster the milk will heat (and the closer you need to watch it).

While milk heats, beat eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt together in a large bowl until sugar is no longer gritty.

When milk is hot, beat it gradually into the egg mixture. Start very slowly so you don’t scramble the eggs. When all the milk is mixed in, pour the custard into the prepared ramekins, filling them almost full. Sprinkle tops with nutmeg or cinnamon.

Set ramekins, in the larger baking pan, as near to the oven as possible. Pour boiling water into the larger pan, trying to get the water to the same level as the custard in the cups. Carefully transfer the filled pan to the oven.

Bake custard 25-30 minutes, or until the centers barely jiggle when you move the pan. Remove the pan from the oven. Remove ramekins from the hot water and place on a rack to cool. When cool, cover and refrigerate. Let custards come to room temperature for a few minutes before serving. Store leftovers in the fridge for two or three days, covered.

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Frozen Treats in January – Cinnamon Gelato

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Gelato is the hot ice cream lately. Or at least it seems to show up in articles in food magazines and on restaurant menus that we have seen lately. We have been thinking about making our own for quite awhile now, but have never managed to find the time. This weekend all the stars aligned and we made our first gelato.

Gelato, according to various sources, is Italian ice cream that is heavy on egg yolks and often uses whole milk as the base instead of cream. I found recipes online that ranged from a dozen egg yolks to none. I settled on one that had a modest amount of egg yolks and both cream and milk that I found on the blog Italian Food Forever. The original recipe was for vanilla, and called for a vanilla bean. We didn’t have any on hand, so I used vanilla extract and then decided to make cinnamon gelato, so we added two teaspoons of cinnamon.

We beat the egg yolks with sugar, heated the milk and cream, tempered the eggs with a little hot milk and then cooked the whole shebang until it thickened. Then we strained the mixture into a bowl to chill in an ice bath until it was cold. Then we churned it in the ice cream maker and put it in the freezer until it was firm enough to serve. After all that we expected perfection.

It was good, but nothing special. And I thought it tasted more like eggy custard than gelato. I prefer my own cinnamon ice cream, which is much less work and doesn’t make a mountain of dirty dishes. I think I am going to leave the gelato making to the professionals, which is not to say I won’t enjoy the rest of our batch. Maybe it just needs some caramel sauce

From leftovers to frittata in a flash

I have wanted to make a frittata for a long time, but have never actually done it. Thanks to a couple of recipes I have come across lately and The Great Leftover Challenge issued by Danny’s Kitchen on his blog, I came up with my own frittata recipe.

We had cheese fondue last Friday night for family movie night (Back to the Future, if you’re curious). We had extra Gruyere and Emmentaler left over. I started thinking about scrambled eggs and cheese, but we have that all the time and it isn’t exactly exciting. Then I thought of a frittata for something different. I was already planning on roasted vegetables with pasta for one dinner this week, so I planned to make extra veggies so I would have some left over for the frittata experiment.

I wish I had done a frittata sooner. It’s better and healthier than quiche. And as easy to make as scrambled eggs, but infinitely more interesting. Rich gave it two thumbs up and Calvin gave it three (not sure how that works!). So here it is – Roasted Vegetable Frittata with Cheese.

You can see the sections that reflect our various veggie preferences.

Roasted Vegetable Frittata with Cheese
from The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

The cheese makes this plenty salty enough, you can always add salt at the table if you think it needs it.

1 tablespoon olive oil
6 eggs
¼ cup milk
3 cloves roasted garlic, diced or mashed
1-2 cups grated sharp cheese (I used Emmentaler, Gruyere and sharp cheddar)
1-2 cups roasted vegetables (I used leftover zucchini, eggplant, carrots and garlic)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Start an ovenproof skillet heating over medium heat and add the olive oil. Beat the eggs with the milk, garlic and about a cup of cheese, and pour in the hot pan. Stir gently and cook until the eggs are starting to set and are about half-cooked. There should still be liquid eggs. Add the vegetables and stir briefly to mix them in a bit. Sprinkle the top with ½-1 cup cheese and place the skillet in the hot oven. Bake until the eggs are set and starting to puff and the cheese is starting to brown, 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Download the recipe here.

Easter preparations are in high gear…


… Or at least they were until we all decided to take a break a little while ago. My parents are hosting Easter dinner (so they have all the really hard work!), and we are taking a lamb cake and three cheese macaroni and cheese. Mac and cheese is done and in the fridge and the cake is baked. The cream cheese and butter are soft and are waiting for me to make them into icing and decorate the cake.

We spent an hour dyeing eggs this afternoon, and I have the blue fingertips to prove it. We have our usual message from inside the egg, that Rich came up with several years ago, “Help, I’m stuck.” And the message from the chickens, “Eat more ham.” Everyone is probably tired of seeing those, but we still find them funny. I like to drip food color directly from the bottle onto already dyed eggs to make abstract shapes (thanks to my brother for the inspiration when we were kids). And Calvin is working to perfect his purple. If anyone has a tried and true formula that makes a pretty purple, let us know!

Me making my polka dot egg. It looked great until I dropped it onto the table – now it is a cracked, polka dot egg.

Calvin is also experimenting with one egg to see what happens when you leave it in the dye overnight. It should be particularly unappetizing, since he picked the red dye for his experiment. Gotta love the middle-school boy’s love of the disgusting.

Calvin's egg soaking in dye in the fridge.

No recipe today. Off to make the icing and decorate the lamb before time to make dinner.

Breakfast for Dinner, or Breakfast

We like to have breakfast for dinner, probably a little too often, but the food police haven’t found us yet. French Toast Casserole is one of our favorites. It started out as a recipe from a Cooking Light magazine several years ago. I have since adapted it just a bit.

The original recipe made 12 servings, which is just too much for our family of three, unless we are having company. I cut the recipe in half, but you can easily double it for a crowd. Bake it in a 9 by 13 inch dish or pan, and add a few minutes to the cooking time. I also added the cinnamon and quadrupled the original amount of vanilla. I play around with the milk and half and half, depending on what we have in the house. When I made it this time we had cream and skim milk (I know that sounds weird). So I used skim for the milk and about ¼ cup cream with the rest skim milk for the half and half. Turned out just fine. We have tried making it with all skim milk, but that little bit of richness from the half and half really adds something. If you don’t care about the fat, you can use regular cream cheese, whole milk or whatever dairy product you like for the milk and half and half.

We usually have this with a couple different kinds of fresh fruit and, if we are really going all out, bacon. Enjoy, for dinner, or for breakfast.

French Toast Casserole
Adapted from Cooking Light
4-6 large servings

8 slices hearty white bread (not Wonder Bread), whole wheat or a combination of both, about 5 cups of 1-inch cubes
4 ounces (1/2 block) 1/3-less fat cream cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
4 eggs
¼ cup maple syrup
¾ cup milk (2%, 1% or skim)
1/3 cup half and half (or milk)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Powdered sugar, for serving
Maple syrup, for serving

Tear or cut bread into 1-inch pieces. You don’t have to be precise. Heavily grease an 8-inch square baking dish. Place bread cubes in dish and set aside.

Beat cream cheese at medium speed of a mixer until smooth. Add cinnamon, if using, and beat until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg. Add maple syrup, milk, half and half and vanilla. Beat until combined.

Pour mixture slowly over bread in prepared dish. If there are any large pieces of cream cheese (which can happen if your cream cheese isn’t quite warm enough), use a knife to spread them over the surface of the bread, otherwise they will bake into hard lumps. Cover with foil and place in refrigerator for several hours, or overnight. If time is short, an hour or so is fine. If you are going with the shorter time, use the back of a fork or spoon to gently push the bread under the egg mixture after you pour it on. Repeat right before baking.

Remove casserole from fridge for 20-30 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake casserole, covered tightly with foil, for 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10-15 minutes, or until casserole is set and browning on top.

Let casserole cool for 5 minutes before cutting into serving pieces. Pass powdered sugar, maple syrup, or both. Store leftovers in the fridge, or for longer storage, in the freezer. Reheats well. I like it for lunch the next day, though my waistline says differently.

Download recipe here.