Vanilla Custard


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.


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)

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.


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.


Kouing Amann – The Story of my Fascination with Breton Butter Pastry


First things first – it is pronounced kween uhmon or kween yahmon. I first heard of this decadent pastry several years ago when I was reading a blog post written by Dorie Greenspan, a cookbook author and chef. She was describing pastries she had eaten on a recent trip to France. Kouing amann are Breton butter pastries in the same family as croissants or puff pastry, but with fewer, thicker layers. The signature of kouing amann is the caramelized sugar that covers the outside of the pastry, thicker on the bottom and sides. I was intrigued by the pastry, but not enough to do more than salivate over the beautiful picture in the post.

A few months ago we visited a new bakery in south St. Louis city, Pint Size Bakery. We went late on a Saturday morning, without doing any research into their specialties or even looking at their menu. We overheard several people ordering salted caramel croissants as we waited in line. We couldn’t see what they looked like through the crowd of people in front of us, but we knew we wanted some, sight unseen. I mean, come on – salted caramel croissants. Who could resist ordering those?

They lived up to our expectations, and then some, as we scarfed them down in the car in the parking lot. They didn’t look like traditional croissants, but were the shape of a hockey puck, only bigger. The entire outside was caramelized with sugar and the insides were flakey and buttery. I had an inkling as we were eating them that they were like something I had read about, but I couldn’t place it. Later we saw a reference online to the salted caramel croissants as Pint Size Bakery’s version of kouing amann. Now a fascination was turning into an obsession. Especially when we went back to the bakery a second time, only to find we were too early and there weren’t any salted croissants to be had for at least another hour. I had to make kouing amann for myself.


I found a recipe for a large kouing amann that looked doable on David Lebovitz’s blog. The directions and photographs spelled it all out in wonderful detail. I mixed it up Friday night, just before dinner. I wanted to get it almost ready for the oven and let it rise all night in the fridge to bake for Saturday breakfast.


I followed the directions – folding the dough over bits of butter, rolling and folding, chilling and sprinkling with sugar. I realized after it was too late that I should have cut the butter into ½-inch pieces (as the recipe said, when I reread it) instead of ½-inch pats. My butter pieces were too big, which made for difficult rolling.


The butter was poking through the dough and falling out all over the place. But it all worked out in the end.


After its overnight chill, I pressed the dough into the pan and baked it as directed. I should have paid more attention the comments people posted about the recipe. My pan was too dark, so the sugar on the bottom caramelized too much. Ours was just shy of burnt, and parts of the sugar hardened to just the right texture to stick to every surface of our teeth. On the other hand, the top didn’t caramelize enough. I had shied away from drizzling the top with a tablespoon of butter, as directed in the recipe. There was already a whole stick in the dough and I didn’t really want to add any more. Now, at that point, what difference would another tablespoon have made?


Despite all the missteps, our kouing amann really was quite tasty. How could it not be, with all that butter and sugar? The inside was both flaky and bready (in a good way) with a lovely yeasty flavor, surrounded by a caramelized sugar and butter crust. It certainly is too rich to make more than once in a blue moon, but I am willing to try it again sometime. But before I do, I am going to venture to the bakery to try another salted caramel croissant. I need to take notes before I make another attempt. You can never do too much research when trying to perfect a recipe, after all.

Russian Teacakes


I like cookies. Well, to be honest, I like pretty much all baked goods. But I do like cookies a lot. And my favorite cookies are Russian teacakes, also known as Mexican wedding cookies. I love the shortbread texture, with its slightly crumbly, buttery richness. Add pecans and an icing-like coating of melted powdered sugar and you have cookie perfection, as far as I’m concerned. And they are quick to make, which is icing on the cake – or cookie.

These are easy cookies to make – the dough comes together in minutes. Be sure to only bake one pan at a time, and don’t put more than twenty cookies on each pan. They need to be coated with powdered sugar while they are hot, and if you bake more than twenty at a time, they will cool before you get them all coated.

My mom likes these cookies as much as I do, and she figured out that if you put the powdered sugar in a plastic bag, you can shake the hot cookies in the sugar and get them done quickly, and with little mess. Don’t do more than three or four cookies at a time, or you won’t have enough room to move them around to cover them thoroughly. And shake them gently, or the cookies will break. Or shake as hard as you like, since the cook gets to eat the broken ones.

Download or print recipe here.

Russian Tea Cakes
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

1 cup butter, room temperature
½ cup powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup finely chopped pecans
2 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup powdered sugar, for rolling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat butter, ½ cup powdered sugar and vanilla until creamy. Add pecans, flour and salt and mix well.

Roll into small balls, ¾ inch or smaller. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until slightly golden and set, and cookie bottoms are golden brown. Do not bake more than one pan at a time or you won’t be able to coat them all with powdered sugar before they cool too much.

Roll cookies in powdered sugar while still hot. You can put the powdered sugar in a plastic bag and gently shake 3 or 4 cookies at a time until covered. Don’t shake too vigorously or the cookies will break apart – they are fragile until cool.

Carefully place coated cookies on racks to cool completely. You can dust with additional powdered sugar after they cool, if desired.

These keep at room temperature for weeks, in an airtight container. Freeze for longer storage.


A Taste of Childhood – Snickerdoodles

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Snickerdoodles are one of those old-fashioned recipes that should never go out of style. Sure, you have your chocolate explosion this and your caramelized toasted nut that, but you can’t go wrong with recipes that have lasted through the generations. There is something to be said for cookies (and pies and cakes) that celebrate the unadulterated flavors of butter and sugar.

My grandmother (mom’s mom) made snickerdoodles often when I was growing up. They were some of my favorites, with no nuts or chocolate that I might not like. Yes, I went through a period when I didn’t like chocolate. I chose Creamsicles over Fudgsicles, butterscotch chips over chocolate and ate only the insides of Oreos. It was a short time (and I was very young) when I thought chocolate was too dark and strong. It was actually in Grandma’s kitchen when I first ate chocolate and liked it. We had stopped by for something and she was taking chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. I had a warm cookie, complete with gooey chocolate, and I haven’t looked back since.

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Back to the snickerdoodles – Grandma kept them in a 3-pound coffee can with a plastic lid. The aroma wafting out of that can when she opened the lid is indescribable. Cinnamon and butter mixed with that “something” that is the magic of cookies. There was nothing like finishing Sunday dinner and having Grandma leave the table and come back with that cookie can.

The recipe uses mostly ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen. You might have to buy cream of tartar, but it is right in the grocery store along with the spices. Trust me, these cookies are super easy and taste nothing like anything you can buy, even in a bakery. These rank among some of my absolute favorites, even in my current chocolate-loving days. What are your favorite homemade cookies?

Download or print recipe here.


From The Cook’s Life
Makes 80 small or 60 medium cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Beat butter and sugar together until completely combined and no longer gritty. Add eggs and beat again until light and fluffy.

Add flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Mix well.

Chill for an hour or up to several days.

If your dough is very cold and hard after chilling, let it rest on the counter for a few minutes to soften while the oven preheats.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment, or lightly grease. Mix together topping ingredients in a small bowl.

Roll dough into small balls, about 1-inch in diameter, or use a 2-teaspoon cookie scoop to portion out the dough. You can make larger balls for larger cookies if you like. Roll balls in topping mixture.

Place coated balls on prepared baking sheets, leaving room for the cookies to spread. Bake 7-8 minutes for small cookies, or 8-10 minutes for medium cookies. Cookies will puff up first and then flatten in the oven. Bake until lightly browned on the bottom, but still soft and a little puffy.

Let cookies cool on pans for about two minutes. Remove cookies to a rack to cool completely before storing in an airtight container for several days. Freeze for longer storage.


Pickled Beets

I love beets. I know I am in the minority, at least in my family, but I love beets. Roasted, boiled and sliced, pickled or canned – beets are one of my favorites. I spend all summer eating them, fresh from the produce farm. I usually forget about them in the winter, though I find that canned beets from the store are pretty good too.

I have tried growing beets several times in the garden. They usually do pretty well. Until the rabbits eat the tops. One year, early in our gardening adventures, I had a beautiful crop of beets. I took the whole harvest, which was about 15 beets (did I mention I have a very small garden) to my parents’ to share, since they appreciate beets, unlike Rich and Calvin. We boiled them and ate them plain because they were so sweet and tasty all on their own. I don’t think we even added salt – they were that good. And I have never had beets that good since. But I have had close seconds, just not from my own garden plot.

My favorite way to have beets is pickled, which to me means just sugar and vinegar. A lot of people, including my parents sometimes, like to add pickling spices, but I prefer mine without. Just that simple sweet tartness, combined with the earthiness of the beets is perfect. And not many vegetables can wake up a plate with such a vivid color.

When you are buying fresh beets, look for smallish beets. They should be smaller than a tennis ball, in my opinion. When they get bigger, they can be woody in the middle, sometimes they are drier and they can be bitter. You want hard beets, with few cracks, but they shouldn’t look desiccated and shriveled. They might have some dirt, because they do grow underground after all. If you don’t want to mess with buying, cooking and peeling fresh beets, you can certainly used canned. They do work just fine. Just look at the ingredients and try to find a brand that contain only beets.

Pickled Beets
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 1-1½ quarts sliced beets

You can use one can of sliced beets to make these, if you would rather. Obviously you will skip the cooking and peeling parts and go right to the sugar and vinegar step. Drain the liquid from the beets before you add the vinegar and sugar, and then proceed with the recipe.

8-12 small to medium whole beets
1/4-1/2 cup sugar
1/2-3/4 cup vinegar

Place the beets in a saucepan and cover with water. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Once water is at a rolling boil, lower the heat to medium to medium low and boil, with the lid on, until the beets are tender all the way to the middle when pierced with a fork. This may take anywhere from 30-90 minutes, depending on the size of the beets.

Remove the beets from the water to a plate and let cool to room temperature.

Cut off the rough stem end of the beets and peel. The skins should come off with a minimum of effort. Slice the beets into about ¼-inch slices, cutting the slices in half if they are too large.

Combine sugar and vinegar to taste in a saucepan. The less sugar and the more vinegar, the sharper the vinegar bite will be. Add sliced beets. If there isn’t enough liquid to just barely cover the slices, add a little water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil for at least 5 minutes, longer if you like, but not until beets are mushy.

Transfer hot beets to jars or storage containers. Let cool to room temperature and store in the fridge. These keep for several weeks because of the vinegar. Serve cold or at room temperature.

 Download the recipe here.


Homemade Caramel Sauce – Yes You Can

I promised in my post on vanilla ice cream that I would cover homemade caramel sauce – and what better time than right before the weekend? You probably already have sugar, you just need butter, cream and vanilla extract, and a little confidence, and you are set.

I watched umpteen cooking shows about caramelizing sugar before I tried it. The first time I did it, I had no idea of the science behind it, stirred too much and ended up with recrystallized sugar. I gave up on it as too hard for probably ten years. Then I found a recipe for caramel sauce from King Arthur flour. This followed closely on the heels of watching Alton Brown make caramel sauce on “Good Eats,” explaining how heat breaks apart the sugar molecules, and what happens if you reintroduce a grain of sugar when you are making caramel. Hint: you recrystallize the whole thing and end up with a pan of sugar like I did. That information, combined with ten more years of experience in the kitchen added up to a resolution to try making caramel sauce again.

I followed the directions in the recipe and ended up with the most luscious, beautiful caramel sauce, good enough to rival any you have ever had, whether from a restaurant or store. And good enough to make you swear off Smucker’s caramel syrup forever.

I have since made this sauce several more times, with only one fail. That was the last time I made it, and I didn’t re-familiarize myself with the directions. I forgot to lower the heat when specified and ended up with a pan of burned black caramel – absolutely black and smoking. Remember when you are working with sugar that hot water and a little soaking take care of even the stickiest, smelliest mess. Fifteen minutes after my mistake, I was back at it with the same pan (and new sugar), after re-reading the directions. Lesson here is not that making caramel is hard, but that we all make mistakes, and you can always start over. You can do this – trust me. And, with pictures and clear directions, you will do it right the first time.

I am not posting the recipe, as I used it almost verbatim from King Arthur Flour. Here is the link to their Pair of Sundae Sauces. We love the caramel sauce, and that is what we were making in the pictures below. We didn’t like the chocolate sauce as much as one that we make out of “Joy of Cooking.” Guess I’ll have to make that this weekend so I can have pictures and post about it next week.

Start with the sugar and water, over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally, until it starts to bubble.

Use this time to measure out your cream and melt your butter. My butter isn’t fully melted here, but it was by the time I needed it.

Lower the heat to medium (this is the step I forgot last time) and watch carefully. The syrup will start to turn golden after a few minutes. It might take longer than you think, but be patient and it will happen.

Only stir if the top starts to look dry like this. And do not try to scrape the crystalized sugar off the sides or you might end up with a pan of granular sugar.

After about 7 minutes, depending on your stove, you should start to see the syrup turning golden. Stir (carefully) or swirl the pan to help the syrup to darken all over.

It took 10 minutes on our stove from the first bubbles to a medium amber color.


When syrup is a medium amber, the color of caramel ice cream syrup (of course), remove from the heat and add the butter. The mixture will bubble furiously – keep stirring.

After the butter is incorporated, add the cream. The sauce will bubble again – again, keep stirring.

Once the mixture is smooth, add the vanilla, or flavoring of your choice from the recipe. We stuck with vanilla, but upped it to 3 teaspoons from 2.

Make sure your container is heatproof. We use a wide-mouth pint canning jar, or a Pyrex bowl. It’s best to make this early in the day, or at least several hours ahead of time so it has time to cool and not melt your ice cream into a puddle. It is also heavenly on spice cake, carrot cake or a spoon.