Custard. The very word conjures images of nursery-room comfort or of Oliver Twist-esque street urchins carolling the virtues of “cold jelly and custard”. The generic term refers to a mixture of cream and eggs thickened by gentle heating, used in dishes ranging from flans, quiches and crème caramel to the Japanese savoury baked custard chawan mushi.
In this case, though, we’re talking unctuous pouring custard, quintessentially English (although the French translation, crème Anglaise, sounds much prettier). It’s favoured for serving warm alongside steamed puddings and cakes (think Christmas pud and brandy-laced custard) or chilled and layered with jelly, fruit and sponge cake in that other English dessert favourite, the trifle. Its versatility is further evident in its frozen incarnation; churn it using an ice-cream machine and you’ll have an ice-cream unrivalled by any commercial preparation.
Flavouring options are virtually unlimited, whether infused with spices, scented with flower essences, spiked with booze, enriched with chocolate or lightened with fresh fruit purées.
There are several keys to a perfect custard which will then carry over to a perfect ice-cream, should you decide to take the extra step. Firstly, when whisking your eggs and sugar, be sure to whisk until very thick and pale. This ensures the sugar is well dissolved and aerates the mixture. Secondly, use a heavy-based saucepan when cooking the custard to reduce the possibility of catching or scorching. When cooking the custard, it’s best to do so over a low-medium heat, stirring continuously so you don’t end up with a scrambled mess. While stirring, you’ll notice the bubbles on the surface of the mixture will disappear as the mixture thickens. This is a good visual clue warning you the mixture is almost ready. If you’re planning to serve the custard warm, remove from the heat just bef-ore it reaches the desired consistency, as the residual heat will continue cooking the egg proteins. Strain into a wide jug and serve immediately. If you’d like to serve it cold, prepare a large bowl of ice (with some water added) and set a smaller bowl on top. Strain the mixture into the bowl using a fine strainer. Cover closely with plastic wrap and refrigerate to cool completely before churning for ice-cream.
Should you ‘split’ or slightly scramble the mixture, there may yet be some recourse. If the mixture is only slightly split, whisk it over ice to allow steam to escape, or cool completely and process in a food processor to try to bring the mixture together. Neither of these methods are guaranteed, but are worth the effort to save your bowl of creamy goodness.