Friday 29 June 2012

Inspiring Tastes of California

On our trip, I fell in love with Californian food.

Not just the produce (o Berkley Bowl, I will miss you so) but the restaurants and bakeries.

I wanted to write something about the places we ate, but making a 'best' or 'top' list seemed ridiculous - we could only eat a certain number of dishes at a relatively small number of places.

Instead I decided to tell you about the five most inspiring tastes - the five dishes that travelled back to England with me on Wednesday, firmly anchored in my memory. They all contain something new to me, something I hadn't thought of. I know they will influence me for years to come and find their way into my kitchen.

In the end, we ate at all of these places more than once. Most were from recommendations by friends (particularly Erin and Stephanie) and readers.

I don't like taking pictures in restaurants or bakeries, so I'm afraid there aren't any photos of the foods I'm describing. You'll just have to conjure them up in your imagination - or book a flight, hop on a boat or get in your car.

1. Gjelina, LA = Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp with Almond Gelato

We found Gjelina at the end of a treasure hunt. I'd read about a bakery on The Amateur Gourmet so we went to investigate. The man sitting at the next table told me I had to go to another bakery. Two different servers at that bakery told us we had to go to Gjelina (I have no idea how to pronounce it either) - according to one, the butterscotch pot de creme with salted caramel and crème fraîche was the best thing she'd ever eaten.

The butterscotch was richly satisfying. The other pudding we tried that afternoon blew me out of the water. We were full - but it disappeared almost instantly. The juicy fruits at the bottom of the pot balanced perfectly - not too bitter, not too sweet. I had tried the all-American strawberry-rhubarb combination for the first time a few days before and not been impressed - this sold it to me. The crisp topping was crunchy, buttery, biscuit-like. The gelato balanced upon the pot was delicate, simple and melted into the crack soon formed by eager spoons. The three contrasted - soft, crisp, cold - and delighted.

Also: panna cotta with mascarpone, cherry and amaretti (another close contender); grilled king oyster mushrooms with tarragon butter; wood roasted asparagus with romesco and parmesan; Mary's chicken liver pate with grilled sourdough; thin wild mushroom and rosemary no-cheese pizza; roasted fennel with chili & blood orange.

2. O Chamé, Berkeley = Caramel Balsamic Gelato

The first time we went to O Chamé, it was to meet Erin for the first time. The power of blogs continues to amaze me - I genuinely felt like I'd known Erin my whole life. I'm sure we'll keep in touch for many years to come. We had a wonderful, chatty lunch full of laughs. The food was gorgeous - unlike anything I'd eaten before.

At the end, we all had a single scoop of caramel balsamic gelato in a small bowl. Later that day, I wrote about it in my notebook: tangy instead of salty, very complex, almost fresh but very creamy and silky. Fascinating!

I'm going to have to experiment with using balsamic and caramel myself.

Also: signature pancake (with mushrooms the first time and white corn the second); crab croquettes; simmered pork shoulder with spinach, takuan and udon in their heavenly broth (this haunted me for days afterwards - I had to have more).

3. Camino, Oakland = Sweet Condiment Plate

I went to Camino for brunch on my 23rd birthday. At the end of the large room (set with enormously long redwood plank tables), there is a big brick open fire. The chefs bustle around in the glow of the flames, cooking and grilling many of the dishes in the fire.

We started with a big basket of several types of grilled bread and the sweet condiment plate, which had fresh sheepsmilk ricotta, walnut butter, bing cherries and homemade orange marmalade. I'd never thought of combining things in this way - serving so many types together. On their own, each element was delicious. Pile them all together (biting the cherry open to remove the pit, staining my lips) onto a chunk of fire-grilled bread and you have something special.

Also: light-as-a-feather freshly made doughnuts with strawberries; wood oven baked eggs with cream; potatoes roasted in duck fat (at brunch). Aragula, duck liver & grilled apricot salad; duck breast kebab and brisket kofte kebab with peas & lentils, yogurt, crispy duck skin nuggets and flat breads fresh from the fire (at dinner). Suzanne's chocolate bread and butter pudding; almond-rosewater meringue with hibiscus granita, whipped cream and strawberries (for pudding).

4. Tartine, San Francisco = Peach and Raspberry Brioche Bread & Butter Pudding.

I knew I couldn't leave California without going to Tartine. It took me a long time to actually get there - the first two times we were on 19th, the queue was too big and we were headed elsewhere. I finally stepped through the door last week. We then returned on our way to airport and picked up food for the flight. I can confirm that eating a Tartine gougère is infinitely preferable to plastic-swathed tasteless food.

After purchasing a few things to take home, we ordered a teacup of bread and butter pudding to eat with our pots of tea. The depths were filled with thick slices of brioche, soaked in a delicate egg custard. The top was strewn with raspberries and peaches and their juices - I think they'd been lightly poached in syrup. I hadn't imagined that bread and butter could be so delicious - it demolished every other type I've tried. Luckily, I have their recipe book!

Also: utterly addictive morning bun, lemon poppyseed cake with crunchy top, lovely teas, chocolate hazelnut tart, gruyère-thyme gougères.

5. Chez Panisse Cafe, Berkeley = Wildflower Honey Ice Cream with Roasted Cherries and Almond Biscotti.

A few days after my birthday, we went to Chez Panisse to celebrate. We walked through the first door into the original restaurant. You have no choice over the menu - it's a set four course meal. The loss of control was interesting - in some ways it was relaxing (no choices, no looking over to the next plate and regretting your decision) but I can see how it might not be for everyone. The food was as good as I'd imagined.

On our last night in California, we went to the cafe upstairs. We preferred it - the slightly more relaxed atmosphere, the choice, the fact we were sitting at the perfect table - and the incredible meal we had. One of the highlights was this pudding. I've tried to make honey ice cream before but failed - I couldn't get the balance right. This was delicate but still punchy - you didn't lose the flavour amongst the other parts. Roasting the cherries brought out their flavour and the biscotti were simple vehicles for the almonds. The three elements came together - each, on their own, the best of themselves - to make a truly beautiful dish.

As you've probably noticed in all of these tastes, my obsession with balance and nuanced flavours is going from strength to strength...

Also: strawberry-rhubarb spritzer; garden lettuce salad; squid with cannellini beans, rocket and cherry tomatoes; fish cakes with shaved fennel, green beans and lobster mayonnaise; peach and berry cobbler with pluot ice cream (cafe). Summer squash and onion tart with olives; Pacific grouper with new potatoes, green beans and sauce bourride; grilled whole quail marinated in juniper with polenta, braised little gems with pancetta and roasted porchini mushrooms; red currant granita with strawberry-raspberry sherbert (restaurant downstairs).

Finally, here are a few other great places we ate...

LA: Caffe Pinguini (amazing warm bread with olive oil and balsamic and lovely fresh Italian - we ate there for days), Proof (lemon meringue cake), Huckleberry.

Santa Barbara: Brophy Bros (chowder).

Big Sur: Big Sur Bakery (best BLT ever, amazing almond croissant and lovely selection of tea).

Sea Ranch: Two Fish Bakery (apple danish, peanut butter cookies, pretty much everything).

San Francisco: Delfina Pizza, Zuni Cafe, Cotogna (corn and chanterelle fagotelli pasta, wood oven roasted peaches with vanilla ice cream), Stanted Door (honey-hoisin ribs, crab cellophane noodles), Bi-rite Creamery (salted caramel, brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl), Foreign Cinema.

Berkeley: Trattoria la Siciliana, Ici Ice Cream (get the cones), The Cheeseboard Collective Pizza & Bakery, Semifreddi's Bakery (snickerdoodles and ciabatta).

{The pictures are of LA, Santa Barbara, Highway 1 and Sea Ranch - I didn't take many in the Bay Area and most of the ones I did were on my film camera. Mum would like to claim the sandy shot - she's very proud of it.}

Monday 25 June 2012

Beetroot Brownies

I can't believe we leave California the day after tomorrow.

It feels a lot like home. I moved house three days before we left on our trip, so I've lived in our borrowed home longer than my house in Oxford. I'm looking forward to going back and settling in - but I'll definitely miss the incredible food, the people and the gorgeous weather I've become accustomed to.

As well as producing eggs, lemons and strawberries, our borrowed garden has a bed of beetroots. I've never eaten much beetroot - a bad pickled experience put me off - but I felt I should give them another try, perhaps with the ever persuasive salve of butter, flour and sugar.

I've come across the combination of beetroot and chocolate in a few places (including this gorgeous video), and thought it would be fun to give it a go. So I went out into the garden, grasped some pink stems and pulled.

I couldn't get a smooth puree in the blender I was using (the blade didn't reach out to the edge and I had a small amount, so it just spat it up the sides and whirred uselessly). The original recipe stated grated or pureed, so I carried on - I wish I could have pureed it. The little grated pieces didn't meld into the brownie, so there were some rather intense beetroot bites.

The other bites were wonderful - earthy and rich.

Beetroot Brownies
(Adapted from a recipe by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, online here)

170g peeled beetroots (about 5)
160g unsalted butter, cubed
160g dark chocolate (roughly 70%), chopped
80g soft brown sugar
80g caster sugar
2 eggs
100g flour
1 tsp baking powder
big pinch of sea salt flakes (or ground)

Chop the beetroots into quarters and place into a small saucepan with a pinch of salt. Cover with cold water then place over a high heat. Bring to the boil then cook for around 10 minutes until they yield softly to a sharp knife. Drain, keeping the bright pink water. Puree in a food processor or blender with 2 tablespoons of the cooking juice.

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F. Grease a 20x30cm tin and line the bottom with baking parchment. Place the chopped chocolate and cubed butter into a medium mixing bowl. Place over a simmering saucepan of water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't hit the water. Stir gently until everything has smoothly melted, then take off the pan and leave to cool a little.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with a hand whisk), whisk the eggs and sugar until thick and frothy - it should look paler, but will still be golden from the brown sugar. Stir in the cooled chocolate and butter mixture (it should be body temperature or lower). Sift the flour and baking powder over the top, then fold in with a metal spoon. Finally add the beetroot puree and fold it in. Transfer to the tin, then sprinkle with the sea salt.

Place into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the mixture is set and a toothpick comes free with a free damp crumbs. Leave to cool a little then cut into squares. Freezes very well, like all brownies (I tend to prefer them after freezing).

(Makes about 15 squares)

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Homemade Ricotta

A few days ago, I asked a question on the Poires au Chocolat facebook page: if you could make one dairy product at home, which would it be? The choices were ricotta, butter and crème fraîche.

Ricotta won.

I asked because I recently bought a copy of The Homemade Pantry. Though lots of the recipes look lovely, the stories that accompany each one are my favourite part of the book - they bring the whole thing alive.

The recipes I immediately wanted to try were in the dairy section. I couldn't decide which one to try first, so I passed the choice on.

Apart from one attempt at marscarpone for the Daring Bakers, way back when, I've never made cheese. This is definitely not a Foundations post - I'm not an expert - it's more of a 'I made cheese! Woah! It worked!' post.

As I was looking over my notes to type the recipe up a minute ago, I realised that I made a mistake yesterday. Instead of converting 1/3 of a cup of lemon juice, I calculated 1/2 cup. Which makes sense - it did taste lemony, and I had to use a lot of lemons (though the ones that grow in the garden are quite small and don't have an enormous amount of juice, so I thought it was that).

I'd love to know how it affected the process and the texture of the cheese, so I'll have to try it again. I've put the correct amount below (90ml instead of 135ml). I also managed to forget to dampen the cheesecloth - it was one of those days.

One of the great tips in the dairy chapter is to ice the pot to stop the milk scorching on the bottom. You just swish an ice cube around the pot until it has melted, then add the rest of the ingredients. As long as you don't touch the bottom when you stir, it seems to stop the problem.

Mum and I had a big debate over how much whey you should take out at the end. I had this vision of cheesemaking that involved squeezing the cheesecloth, so that's what I did. Mum thought that it made the ricotta too dry - I didn't mind. Either way, I had a lot of fun squeezing it.

The first way we ate the ricotta was on fresh bread with a little orange zest, a generous drizzle of honey (from the bees in the garden!) and some of the amazing cherries we've been eating here. It was a gorgeous snack.

I then used most of the ricotta in this Chocolate Ricotta Pound Cake. I first made it in 2010 - it's an unusual cake, somehow damp and almost creamy but not too rich.

Because of the extra-lemony ricotta, the cake has a fruity taste. At first I didn't like it, but it's definitely growing on me. I want to try it in a non-chocolate pound cake another time.

Though I made a few mistakes, I loved making ricotta. Like most of the best cooking and baking techniques, it felt a lot like magic.

As a result, I may or may not have chanted this over the curdling pot:

"Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."
Macbeth, IV.i

The old superstition is that witches curdle milk, so it seems appropriate.

(adapted from The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila)

1.9 litres whole milk
90ml lemon juice
1 ice cube

Measure out the milk and squeeze the lemons. Get a big, heavy-bottomed pot and place it near the stove. Add the ice cube and swirl it around until it has totally melted. Pour in the milk (on top of the water) and then the lemon juice. Give the pot a very quick stir, making sure you don't touch the bottom.

Transfer the pot to the stove, then attach a thermometer (cheese, sugar etc, not meat) to the side. Turn the heat onto the lowest setting. Heat for about 40-50 minutes, until the temperature reads 80C/175F. You don't need to sit watching it - just come back to check the temperature. Stir once or twice during this period, again not touching the bottom.

When it hits 80C/175F, turn the heat up to medium-high. Don't stir. Watch it until the temperature reaches 95C/205F, then take the pan off the heat. It shouldn't boil. Leave to sit for 10 minutes. It looks like this - the curds and whey have separated.

Line a sieve or fine colander with a double layer of damp cheesecloth. Use a slotted spoon to transfer scoops of the curds into the cheesecloth. Let them drain for ten minutes. Simply transfer to a bowl if you want a loose, wet ricotta, or squeeze a little for a thicker version. You can also keep and use the whey if you like - Alana recommends using it as the liquid for bread or instead of stock in soups.

(Makes approximately 300g ricotta)

Monday 11 June 2012

That Chocolate Cake

Today I turned 23.

A week ago, I started writing a post for my birthday.

I wrote that 22 had started with crushing heartbreak. I described how the past few months have felt like speeding along on rollercoaster in the dark, complete with a feeling of uncertainty and a heady combination of thrilling highs and stomach-churning bad news. Everything I thought I knew has been questioned and every week seems to bring another life changing decision. I feel older - weathered by the wind.

But you know what? It's my birthday. I don't want to dwell on the difficult parts of this year, or how the thought of my future fills me to the brim with a potent mixture of deep excitement spiked with fear and self-doubt.

Today is a day to celebrate.

No celebration is complete without CAKE.

This cake is that chocolate cake, a recipe I'd heard whispers about. In our borrowed Berkeley home, the Scharffenberger chocolate book was left on the kitchen island. It had a sticky note marking that page and five stars etched in pencil at the top. How could I resist?

Mum and I made the cake together. I finished it off with some strawberries and strawberry flowers from the garden. It's a fudgy, dark chocolate cake - and surprisingly not too sweet. I was highly skeptical about the amount of sugar but decided to follow the recipe faithfully. If you can't find the 99% chocolate for the icing, I'd try a different ganache recipe (perhaps double the example here) - a lower percentage would make it too sweet.

Finally, a few days ago I bought myself an early birthday present with the prize money from the Guild award and some savings. I bought a Canon 5D Mk II and a 1.4/50 to replace my old Sony DSLR. I swore I wouldn't upgrade until I really needed to - my lovely friend Erin helped me realize I'd hit that wall. I still feel slightly at sea but I'm really pleased with how things are developing so far.

We ate the cake outside on the decking. It has been a gorgeous, blue-skied day.

(PS. Though it may say June 11th at the top of this post, it's still the 10th and therefore my birthday in California.)

That Chocolate Cake
(Adapted from The Essence of Chocolate by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg. Also online here in cups.)

For the icing:
275ml double cream
250g granulated sugar
130g 99% unsweetened dark chocolate, finely chopped
100g unsalted butter, cubed
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the cake:
450g granulated sugar
200g plain flour
85g unsweetened cocoa powder
1.5 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 large eggs, beaten
275ml milk
135ml canola oil/another oil with no flavour
275ml boiling water

Start with the icing. Combine the cream and sugar in a large saucepan. Put over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Once it starts to properly bubble, turn the heat down to low and simmer for 6 minutes. It foams up a lot. Take off the heat and leave to cool for one minute then add the butter and chopped chocolate. Stir until smooth then transfer to another bowl and stir in the vanilla. Leave to cool, stirring occasionally.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Butter, line and flour two 8" cake tins (not ones with removable bases, the batter is too liquid). Place the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer with the beater attached. Stir on the lowest setting until a uniform brown colour. Add the beaten eggs, milk and canola oil then turn the mixer up to medium and beat for 2 minutes. Boil the kettle while it beats then turn off and pour in the water. Mix it on low until smooth - it is very soupy. Divide between the two tins - I think mine were 650g each but I forgot to write it down. Carefully transfer to the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a skewer can be removed from the centre cleanly (mine took 40). Leave to cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes in the tins then turn out and remove the paper.

By the time the cakes are totally cool, the icing should be thick enough to ice - it should hold its own weight. Place one of the cakes onto a serving plate lined with paper strips. Spoon some of the icing into the middle and spread it out. Add the top layer then spoon about half the rest of the icing onto the top. Drag down and over the sides and smooth over. Add the rest as you need it, working fairly quickly. Use a palette knife dipped in a jug of hot water then dried with a towel to get a shiny finish. Watch out as you move it - the layers can slide a little until it sets up. Add any decorations, final flourishes and candles then slice and enjoy.

(Serves 10-12)

EDIT 13/6/12: We've found that the cake got even better the next day, and is still lovely two more days later, though the icing has clouded and is slightly speckled. It'd definitely be the perfect cake to try if you needed to make it the day before a party or event.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Lemon & Brown Sugar Meringue Tartlets

Where do I begin? I have so many stories to share.

It might be simplest if we start with the short, factual version. I'm sure the outline will be fleshed out in the next few posts. What do you want to hear about?

When I left you, over six weeks ago, I was still in Switzerland. When I flew back to the UK a few days later, I packed up my flat in London, saw friends and went to some meetings. Mum joined me and we went to see family in Devon for a few days. I moved from the flat to my house in Oxford. Two days later, I graduated from university (Oxford has a big delay between exams and the ceremony). The next day, we flew to America. Three weeks of travel and delicious food later, I flew back to England - to go to an awards ceremony, have more meetings, and organize my house. On Monday I flew back to California.

In a stroke of wonderful luck, we've rented an incredible house in Berkeley. Through the kitchen windows you can see the citrus plants just outside, laden with oranges or lemons. The gravel below the huge pots is strewn with fallen fruit, just waiting to be swept into a pile.

There are six chickens in a run tucked beside the vegetable patch. To me, this means fresh eggs with gorgeous orange yolks for baking. To mum, this is a very welcome return to chicken keeping.

To make the most of this unexpected windfall, I decided to use the eggs and lemons to make a bright curd and some shiny Swiss meringue.

I also made some very thin and crispy tart cases to contrast with the silky softness of the fillings. I made these on my first day here - in the midst of the jet lag and confusion, a fiddly task settled my mind.

We're staying in this house for the remaining three weeks of our trip. It feels good to have a solid base (especially one with a very well stocked kitchen).

Though I've cooked a few little things, I essentially haven't made or photographed food for six weeks. I feel rusty - my fingers ached as I rubbed in, my arms complained about whisking, I couldn't get the colours to look right on camera. Whatever the results, it feels wonderful to properly dig my hands into flour again.

I made a full recipe of the lemon curd so we had some for spreading on bread, stirring into greek yogurt and just eating on a spoon. A half recipe should be around the right amount to fill the tarts. The meringue is absolutely delightful - thick, strong (you can give your tarts silly hair if you so desire) and full of flavour from the brown sugar.

Watch out if you don't have a blow torch and decide to toast the meringue under the grill - I managed to incinerate the tips on one tart. Though, actually, I rather liked the touch of smoke.

EDIT 12/6/12: As you might have noticed, I've changed some of of the photos on this post - of the lemons and chickens - because I really didn't like them and once I had my shiny new camera, I decided to re-shoot. Now the others are annoying me!

Lemon & Brown Sugar Meringue Tartlets
(Lemon curd adapted from David Lebovitz, meringue adapted from Ottolenghi's The Cookbook)

For the pastry:
60g plain flour
1 tsp caster sugar
zest of 1/2 a small lemon
pinch of fine sea salt
30g cold unsalted butter, cubed
approx 1.5 tbsp cold water

For the lemon curd:
125ml lemon juice (6 tiny lemons)
rind of 1 small lemon
100g caster sugar
2 egg yolks (approx 40g)
2 whole eggs (approx 100g)
pinch of fine sea salt
85g unsalted butter

For the meringue:
2 egg whites (approx 60g)
65g caster sugar
35g brown sugar

Place the flour, sugar, zest and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir with a whisk or fork to combine and loosen any lumps of flour. Add the butter and rub it in until it looks like wet sand. Sprinkle the water over and start to work in with a plastic pastry scraper or knife. Bring together with your hands then squish the ball once or twice upon the surface with the base of your hand to fully combine the mixture. Form into a flat disc and wrap in cling film. Chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge - it should be firm but not hard to the touch.

While the pastry chills, make the curd. Place a medium saucepan onto the stove and fill with a few inches of water. Turn the heat up to medium. Prepare a bowl with a sieve over it and place it near the stove. Whisk the lemon juice, rind, sugar, yolks, whole eggs and salt together in a medium sized bowl (which fits on top of the saucepan without touching the water). Place it over the water and add the pieces of butter, whisking constantly. Once the butter had melted, turn the heat up to medium-high and keep whisking until the mixture thickens considerably - you should be able to leave whisk marks/small peaks on the surface. As soon as it's ready, scrape it into the sieve and press it through into the bowl (this catches the lemon rind, the chalaza and any small lumps) and cool. Leave the saucepan on the side - you'll need it later for the meringue.

I find it easier to divide the pastry and roll each circle out individually when doing a small number like this. So chop the pastry into 6, making each piece into a disc - each piece should weigh approx 20g - and place them back in the fridge. Preheat the oven to 180C. Lightly dust the surface and your rolling pin with flour. Take one piece and roll it out, turning it 1/4 between each roll. When very thin and about the right size, place into the case (the ones here are 3.5 inches across the top). Press down into the corners and then into the sides. Put back in the fridge to chill without trimming.

Repeat for the others, then take the first out again. Press the sides in and up, then trim by sliding a sharp knife along the edge of the tin. Line with paper and fill right up to the top with baking beans or rice. Put back in the fridge and repeat with the others. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is nearly cooked through. Remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 5-10 minutes until golden and crisp. Remove to cool on a wire rack.

Have a stand mixer fitted with a bowl and whisk ready. Wipe the bottom of another clean, medium sized mixing bowl with one of the juiced lemon rinds (this helps remove any little bits of grease which can spoil your meringue). Place the egg whites, caster sugar and brown sugar into the bowl and whisk together. Place the bowl over the water. Keep lightly whisking as it warms up and the sugar dissolves - you want the mixture to be smooth and hot to the touch. Test by rubbing a little of the mixture between two fingers. When you can no longer feel any grains, take it off the heat and quickly scrape it into the stand mixer bowl. Turn up to high and whisk for approximately 4 minutes until very stiff, golden and shiny. It should still feel warm - turn the mixer down to medium and whip until cool to the touch.

Transfer half of the meringue to a plastic piping bag (or a plastic ziplock bag). Take your pastry cases and fill with 1-2 tbsp of lemon curd. Snip off the end of the bag and pipe on top of the curd with the meringue. When you've run out of meringue (it should be enough for three) re-fill the bag and finish the other three. If you have a blow torch, toast the meringue in steady sweeps. If not, preheat the grill and place them underneath until browned - this only takes a very short time, so don't leave them. You can also leave them without toasting the meringue.

(Makes six tarts with leftover lemon curd)

Friday 1 June 2012

Foundations no.6 - Egg Yolk Custard

I'm not sure I can imagine a life without custard. It seeps into so many recipes and cultures. It never stops flowing into trifles and over crumbles.

As well as creating custard to pour lavishly over your dessert, this method (and variations upon it) can be used to make a stirred custard base for ice cream. And that's before we even look at baked custards like crème brûlée, custard tarts, crème pâtissière style concoctions or relatives like lemon curd.

Yet traditional custard can be a bit daunting - all the talk of curdling, lumps and long stirring times often put people off (and, it seems, a rather strong attachment in the UK to custard powder). Being able to make an egg-thickened custard is a great skill to have, which is why I chose it for this series.

Though you can use vanilla extract as flavouring, there's nothing quite like infusing custards with a proper vanilla pod. Above I've shown my method for splitting and scraping a pod. The photos run l-r, top to bottom.

1/ Take your pod and place it on a chopping board. Hold it down then run your knife along the pod at an angle to flatten it - it may be easier to use the blunt side of your knife.

2/ Insert your knife into the middle of the pod, then pull down along it, splitting it. It can help to press lightly on top of the knife with a finger as it moves.

3/ Run the knife down the inside of each side, removing the seeds.

4/ Add both the seeds and the scraped pod to the pan.

When you want to start making your custard, you need to get everything ready.

For my custard (based on this recipe) I had 300ml milk, 1 vanilla pod, 5 egg yolks, 25g caster sugar and 50ml double cream.

In particular, your yolks need to be in a bowl by the stove (as you can see, I'd run out so a big teacup had to do) with a whisk handy (the first one I tried was too big for my teacup, so do check). It's also helpful to have the cream in a jug big enough to hold all the custard (i.e. not the one pictured...) and to have a sieve on hand.

Add the milk and sugar to the pan with the vanilla pod. Place over a medium-high heat and briefly whisk to release the seeds and help the vanilla infuse.

When it starts to steam, you're ready to temper the egg yolks. Turn the heat off.

Start by whisking the yolks to break them up. Then slowly pour in about 1/3 of the hot milk, constantly whisking the yolks.

Once you've added the 1/3 milk, quickly give the yolk mixture an extra whisk.

Return the yolk mixture to the pan, whisking as you add it. Scrape all the last drops into the pan with a spatula.

Remove the whisk from the pan and exchange it for a wooden spoon (I find a spatula doesn't hold the coating like a spoon, making it hard to test). Turn the heat back on under the pan - a low to medium heat should be enough. I would start low and then increase another time if you're happy - it will take a bit longer but is worth it if you're nervous.

Stir constantly over the heat until the custard thickens, making sure you scrape the corners and bottom to stop lumps forming. When you remove the spoon at first, the custard won't coat the back at all (see below, left).

Once it's thick enough, it will coat the back of the spoon and you will be able to draw a clearly visible line through it, as you can see on the right. (It's not normally blotchy - they seemed to have formed around clumps of vanilla seeds - but it's the thickness you're looking for).

When you're happy with the thickness, strain the custard into the jug containing the cream and stir well. You need to strain the custard to catch the chalaza (the little connecting threads between the yolk and white) and any little lumps that have formed.

The process of straining and the cold cream will also quickly stop the cooking. You can also sit the jug in a bath of ice water - ice cream recipes often include this step. Cover the surface of the custard with clingfilm so a skin doesn't form.

I should note that I generally use a recipe for custard that doesn't call for the blanching the egg yolks and sugar beforehand. Many recipes do and if you're making crème pâtissière or similar, you will need to. I haven't included it above but you essentially just whisk the two together until very pale and thick before adding the milk. Be careful to start whisking the sugar in immediately - if left on top of the yolks the sugar will 'burn' them, forming lumps.

Four recipes that use this technique:

Mixed Berry Meringue with Custard
Buttered Pecan and Butterscotch Ice Cream
Mint Choc Chip Ice Cream
Rich Vanilla Ice Cream


This is the last post of my current Foundations series. The first post was on rubbing in to create pastry. The second covered brown butter, followed by a third on creaming butter and sugar, a forth about icing cakes and a fifth looking at chocolate ganache. It will return next year.