And so from mustard to custard, and what a difference that consonant makes. The former grown-up and fiery, the latter a lumpen, pustular, gungy memory of a smelly school canteen. In Britain, childhood and custard go hand in lollipop-lady hand. I know of no better food to calm a choleric toddler or mollify a stroppy seven-year-old than a knocked-up bowl of Bird’s. It comforts like mum and a blanket. Mr Bumble’s orphans cry to have it with cold jelly, and who could blame them?
The physical chemistry of the egg reaches a kind of apex in custard, in the balance between thin, thick and curdled. Its semi-liquid, semi-solid quality gives it both that delicious texture and its strange behaviour: you can walk across some custards, as once demonstrated on television.
The word ‘custard’ comes from ‘croustade’, a sweet and eggy ‘crusted’ tart from the Middle Ages. Around the 16th century the filling became a dish in its own right, and has changed little since save for the Great Custard Split of 1837, when Clarence Bird developed a cornflour-based custard powder for his allergy-prone wife. Bird’s Custard is now one of the most recognised brands in the UK. I bought some before writing this: it’s pale and pink, a kind of My Little Pony cocaine. The ingredients are a found poem, oddly reassuring in their brevity: ‘Cornflour; Salt; Colour: Annatto; Flavouring’. You mix milk into the kiddie coke and it bleeds battery egg-yolk yellow. Reheated, it clabbers into a viscous gel smelling of Play-Doh, eventually forming a clingfilm skin. I finished the lot.
Custard’s texture has given it a unique role in slapstick and satire. When an eco-activist poured green custard over Peter Mandelson last year, she was upholding the sauce’s tradition as an underminer of pomp and sanctimony. A face splatted in custard pie has been a trope of farce almost since the birth of cinema; the largest pie fight in film history was probably 1961’s The Great Race. Bill Gates and Karl Lagerfeld have been spectacularly pied, as was that wicked old homophobe Anita Bryant in 1977. (An audio recording of that happy event opened Chumbawamba’s homage to ‘pieing’, Just Desserts.)
We think of custard as sweet, but globally it’s at least as common savoury: as the eggy binder of a cheesy quiche, Japanesechawanmushi, or the sunspotted topping of a bobotie. The signature dish of blogger-baiting chef Rowley Leigh is ‘parmesan custard and anchovy toast’: an “instant classic” according to Matthew Norman, but with the potential to taste of “acne pus matured in teenage disco sock” in the words of AA Gill. Americans seem to like ‘frozen custard’, which I’ve never tasted. If you have, let us know what it’s like; I’d be interested to know how it compares to vanilla ice cream, that other glorious exemplum of the goo.
Classic pouring custard should be heated to around 80C: higher than that and it’s sugary scrambled eggs, under 75 and it’s thin and slimy. But patience is all. As Harold McGee says,
“Turning up the heat is like accelerating on a wet road while you’re looking for an unfamiliar driveway. You may … not be able to brake in time to avoid skidding past.”
Recipes tend to say that the sauce is ready when it “coats the back of a spoon”, a meaningless, unconsidered scrap of kitchen hand-me-down. Custard’s done when it’s thick and glossy, and you learn when to stop cooking through splits and seethes.
Well made, custard is one of the finest tastes in the kitchen: gentle, encompassing, Saharan yellow, haunted with shrivelled vanilla pods and smooth as Portillo. It’s a coy, knickers-on sauce to mellow and soothe – glorious hot or cold, puddled into a flan or wobbling as a crème caramel. We enjoy it in youth and maturity and possibly beyond – the tins aren’t called Ambrosia for nothing. A childhood without custard, I say, is a childhood deprived, and young Master Twist would agree. What do you reckon?
I would suggest instead that you get your arse down the corner shop, buy these ingredients and make some custard.
Here is a recipe you might like to try;
Excellent recipe from prue Leiths cookery bible,
1oz cornflour per egg yolk (need about 3 yolks for 3/4 pint milk)
mix to paste with a little of the milk
bring rest of milk to boil
add milk to paste
return to pan, stirring as you go…
Add vanilla essence to taste (or anything else) or you could add cocoa to dry mix if you want chocolate custard.
I like to add a fruity liquor and then my spoon.