Milk is to custard as bread is to brioche: the latter is the childish, slightly pampered version of the former. Given such simple, everyday staples, it is amazing what a difference some eggs and sugar can make. Brioche isn’t quite a cake; custard isn’t quite a pudding on its own. They inhabit that no man’s land between prudence and out-and-out extravagance – that comfortable spot somewhere in-between.
I adore custard in all its forms. Home made, it can be an indulgent cream-based sauce, good hot or cold. A few adjustments and it is frozen into ices, to be licked beside the seaside before the drips run down your fingers. As restaurant food, there is the pleasure of the sharp crack as spoon breaks caramel before carving through the thick smooth pale dessert beneath. And I’d never say no to a bowl of Bird’s powdered custard, determinedly yellow and comfortably thick.
My very favourite sort of custard, though, is the kind you make at home – pale, runny and delicately flavoured. It treads the line carefully between indulgence and good plain cooking: the number of eggs set against the simplicity of the recipe. This is the sort of custard that tells everyone you love them enough to spend a long time stirring, but is still casual enough for a midweek supper. You can pour this over almost anything sweet: stewed fruit, steamed puddings, apple pies and fragrant, sliced bananas. But the very best way to eat this is with some sort of sponge: an apple cake, an Exmoor in and-out, or a jammy swiss roll. The thinnish sauce soaks into the still warm cake and the result is well worth the effort.
5 eggs (yolks only)
4 tablespoons white sugar
1 pint (about 450 ml) whole milk
a vanilla pod or a teaspoon of good vanilla extract
Some recipes recommend six egg yolks and six spoonfuls of sugar, others five. Try both and see which you prefer. You might also want to add another tablespoon of sugar – it’s really up to you. If you want a thicker, richer sauce, make this with a pint of single cream instead of the milk – which is how I make it for Christmas dinner. The rest of the time, milk seems more appropriate, somehow.
Put the milk into a heavy bottomed pan over a low heat. Add the vanilla, in whichever form you have it. You want the milk to almost reach a simmer – when it starts to quiver in the pan, take it off. While you’re waiting, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until they are quite pale and frothy. Remove the vanilla pod from the milk, if you are using one, and cut it open along its length, scraping out the little black seeds and putting them back into the milk. Add the milk to the eggs and mix it all up. Then – and this is important – wash the milk pan quite thoroughly. If you don’t, the custard will catch on the bottom of the pan.
Put the whole lot, in the clean pan, back on a low heat and stir and stir and stir. Go slowly and be gentle – you just need to stop the custard at the bottom of the pan cooking too quickly and turning into sweet scrambled eggs. Keep stirring until the sauce begins to thicken – it should be about as thick as single cream, but it doesn’t matter if it is thinner.
You can make this in advance and keep it somewhere cool for a day or so (again, be gentle when reheating) or you can eat it up at once. Need I tell you what I prefer to do?