Friday, April 9, 2010

Don't panic!

THE other week I decided to make an apple custard teacake to take to my mum's place. I'd torn the recipe out of Good Living a year or so ago and never gotten around to making it, but I had a few Granny Smiths in the fruit bowl that needed to be eaten, so it seemed like the perfect fit.

Filled with enthusiasm, I began with the custard. I heated the milk and vanilla until it was steaming but not boiling; whisked the egg yolks with the caster sugar until thick and creamy; carefully poured the hot milk in a thin stream over the yolk mixture until it was combined and smooth; filled the sink with ice water in case of any sudden curdling; then transferred the would-be custard back in to the saucepan and stirred over a low heat.

Then - panic! I turned away to check on the time, stopped stirring, and a dirty great lump appeared, right in the middle of my milky mixture. Thank God I filled the sink, I thought, and plunged the saucepan in the cold water and beat until the mixture smoothed out again.

The only trouble was that now I had a smooth mix, but it was still the consistency of milk, not - as my boyfriend thoughtfully (and helpfully) pointed out - the consistency of custard. And certainly not like the custard his mother used to make. I'd panicked too early, he suggested.

I made the custard cake anyway but it was not like I had imagined it to be, so this week I was determined to make custard until I bloody well got it right ... or at least until it was like Dicko's mother used to make.

As I often do in times of stress, I thought: What would Nigella do? And pulled How To Eat off the shelf. Sure enough, Nigella knew. She recommends using single cream, or pure cream as it's called on my supermarket shelf, and she's incredibly helpful in offering up both a set recipe and a set of guidelines on the quantities of ingredients used.

For every egg yolk used, Nigella says, you'll need 100ml of cream and a heaped teaspoon of caster sugar. You can either infuse the milk with a vanilla pod or stir in about a teaspoon of vanilla extract at the end.

Determined not to panic, I took a deep breath and began. 200ml of cream, heated almost to boiling point, was poured on top of two egg yolks and two teaspoons of sugar that had been whisked together (in the KitchenAid; yeah, I'm lazy) until thick and lightened in colour. Then I washed and dried the saucepan, as Nigella recommends, poured the mix back in and started stirring over low to moderate heat.

It would take 8-10 minutes, Nigella said, and after eight minutes I had, well, milk. But I was determined not to panic, and I kept stirring. Then 10 minutes had gone past. I still had milk. There was swearing. I still had hope, though: it smelled like custard. Surely I hadn't done anything wrong - had I?

I kept stirring, and lo and behold, after 12 minutes there was a visible thickening. I could hardly dare to believe it. Did I have custard? I kept stirring until the 15-minute mark, took it off the stove and gave it a good solid beating in the cold water in the sink.

"That looks more like the custard Mum made!" Dicko said encouragingly.

I popped it into the fridge to chill and made a few meringue nests out of the two egg whites I'd saved from the custard. Then it was the moment of truth: the custard came out of the fridge and I swirled the saucepan. No movement! I stuck my finger in (yes, lazy and disgusting) and it tasted like custard. I took it over to Dicko for the final say.

"That's the custard Mum used to make!"
As you can see from the top of the post, we had it on top of the meringue nests with some berries. Best pavlova ever.

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