Sweet and savoury custard, chawan mushi, hor mok and rindesuppe

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Food glossary

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

Custard can be savoury or sweet and is found in many cuisines. It is made by heating eggs in milk or some other liquid (currant juice, wine, water, cream) until it thickens. In England it is commonly made as a dessert, in Portugal it is found in the delicious custard tarts (which are believed to have been introduced by the Moors) and in Japan it is a savoury dish incorporating seafood and sometimes pieces of chicken (called chawan mushi). This is somewhat similar to a dish found in Austria called Rindesuppe which is a clear soup that sometimes incorporates strips of custard that have been baked in the oven until set. The custard is made from mixing eggs with the broth used for the soup.
The Larouse Gastronomique 2001 edition defines a custard as 'a hot or cold mixture, set or thickened with eggs'. Notice that the only ingredient which is essential for it to be a custard is that the thickening agent is eggs. The liquid can be milk or cream for Western dessert custards or dashi stock in the case of the savoury Japanese custard, Chawan Mushi or currant juice in early England.
It goes further to distinguish two types of sweet custards, pouring custards or sauces such as crème anglaise, crème patissiere and sabayon and set custards which can be baked or steamed such as crème brulee or crème caramel.
The venerable Escoffier provides a basic recipe for his crème a l'Anglaise which sees 16 egg yolks combined with 500 grams sugar added to 1 litre of milk. He permits the optional addition of 1 teaspoon of arrowroot to prevent the mixture curdling.
Writing in Italy at about the same time as Escoffier, the erudite Pellegrino Artusi writes of custard in his Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. However his proportions are substantially less rich than Escoffier using only eight egg yolks for 1 litre of milk.
He also proposes a delicious recipe for 'Custard Cups' which includes 60 grams of ground toasted almond meal in a water-based custard (where he mixes 10 egg yolks in 100 mls of water with 300 grams of sugar). This confection is flavoured with a dash of orange-flower water and some ground cinnamon.
The principal of the school of cooking in Boston and mentor to Fannie Farmer, Maria Parloa, published a recipe for custard in her 1880 classic Miss Parloa's New Cook Book.
Her recipe for a soft custard is:
One quart of milk, one scant half teacupful of sugar, half a teaspoonful of salt, the yolks of eight eggs and whites of two, one teaspoonful of lemon or vanilla flavor, or half as much of almond. Beat the sugar and eggs together, and add one cupful of milk. Let the remainder of the milk come to a boil, pour it on the beaten mixture, and put this on the fire in the double boiler. Stir until it begins to thicken, which will be in about five minutes, when add the salt, and set away to cool. When cold, add the flavor. Serve in custard glasses.
Writing much earlier, Eliza Acton in her 1845 classic Modern Cookery for Private Families includes a number of recipes for custard including an interesting one built on currant juice rather than milk.
In the 1931 classic The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer cites sixteen recipes for custard. Her baked custard includes 4 egg yolks, half a cup of sugar mixed with 2 cups of milk. This is flavoured with a teaspoon of vanilla.
She also includes a recipe for wine custard (weinschaum) which sees the milk replaced by the same quantity of white wine.
She also includes a recipe for 'Cornstarch Pudding' which sees three to four tablespoons of cornflour replacing the egg mixture. This type of recipe became popular during the Depression (which was when the book was written) and later during the Second World War when eggs were very scarce. It may have also been the progenitor of the idea that custard is not made from eggs!
In Thailand eggs are often used for desserts and a custard is common made from egg whites rather than egg yolks, however there are a number of desserts that use egg yolks including the yolks of the stronger-tasting duck eggs. The Thai people also make a delicious seafood curry custard called Hor Mok where coconut cream flavoured with curry paste, fish sauce and lime juice is mixed with egg and steamed gently in banana leaves until set.
The French prefer to bake their egg dishes with custards being called crème - hence crème caramel and crème brulee.
Custards have been known for a long time. At the time of the United States Civil War in the cookbook entitled Mrs. Putnam's Receipt Book and Young Housekeeper's Assistant by Elizabeth Putnam there are six custards detailed including a French custard where the whites and yolks are cooked separately and a beautiful chocolate custard.
Stephanie Alexander urges 1 cup of milk and one of cream flavoured with 1 vanilla bean and 125 grams of sugar to 5 egg yolks.

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