Wilawan Tippe loves to cook. Watching her do what she loves is a bit of an adventure.
Tippe, the owner of Royal Thai restaurant on Wilson Street in Brewer, didn’t measure a single thing.
She poured and sprinkled and mixed the ingredients together, and about an hour later I had before me a steaming dish of Thai Pumpkin Custard.
It was perfection.
The custard was light with a hint of vanilla, but the true star was the squash. The flavor was distinctly that of squash, but sweet because of the sugar.
That’s the beauty of Thai food: The flavor is the thing.
“You can taste everything,” said Lisa Carter of Hampden. She and her husband, Scott, had stopped in that Sunday afternoon for a meal of their favorite spicy dish, Sobbing Princess, and an order of mango fried rice.
Each flavor is there, Carter said, because it isn’t overwhelmed with sauce and everything is “so fresh.”
While the seasonings for Thai food can be spicy or savory, they never overpower the main ingredients, especially the vegetables or fresh herbs.
Instead, the ingredients and spices play off each other, giving your taste buds an excursion away from ordinary fare.
The first time I tried the custard I knew it would be a perfect complement to Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of the traditional spiced pumpkin custard used in pumpkin pies, the only spice in this dish is vanilla. And there’s no pie crust to fret over.
So a couple of months ago I asked Tippe if she would be willing to share her recipe for the custard and maybe a traditional Thai dish, along with a bit of her life here in the United States.
Royal Thai is Tippe’s latest venture in the restaurant business. She opened it in October 2007 on the site of several previous Thai restaurants. By late summer 2008, she opened Thai 2 Go, a takeout place in a little building on the corner of State and Broadway in Bangor.
Tippe came to the United States in 1973. She married a U.S. Navy SEAL and had two children. In 1982, her husband died.
On her own, Tippe opened a restaurant in Long Island, N.Y., soon after graduating from cooking school and nursing school. After a few years, she went to work as a mental health nurse.
Tippe first moved to Maine in 1990 and opened a restaurant in Boothbay Harbor named Patya. A couple of years later, she moved back to Boston to work as a certified nurse’s aid, then back to Portland to work at Mercy Hospital. In 2007, as she was driving through Brewer, she saw the restaurant for sale and bought it soon after.
On our afternoon of cooking, Tippe sat down with me to list the ingredients for the custard once she had served her customers. When I made two batches of the custard this past weekend, I ended up slightly adjusting some of the final amounts closer to what I think Tippe used: I tried the version Tippe gave me, which seemed to have too much cornstarch and sugar, and then adjusted some of the amounts slightly to a version that seemed a bit closer to what I saw her do.
Remember, the longtime cook never measured anything, except the number of eggs. My version uses about half the sugar and cornstarch of what Tippe thought she used and a bit more half-and-half.
My only caution is that you must mix in the final ingredient, the cornstarch, very well so it won’t separate once you start steaming the dish. One of my batches had a major problem with the cornstarch doing just this.
There are a couple of great things about serving this dessert for Thanksgiving.
With all of the squash in the dish, you can “cheat” and say it isn’t really dessert. “I think that could be considered a vegetable,” said customer Lisa Carter with a laugh after trying some at the restaurant.
The other bonus is that you don’t have to fight for space in the oven with the turkey; you can steam it on the stovetop while the turkey is cooking.
So, courtesy of Wilawan Tippe, add a little adventure to your Thanksgiving menu.
Although you may want to measure the ingredients this time.
Thai Pumpkin Custard
Makes enough for 2 standard pie plates
4 cups julienned pumpkin or squash
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups half and half
Seed and peel a small pumpkin or squash (such as acorn or buttercup) then julienne the flesh. A 3-pound pie pumpkin should yield about 7 cups of julienned pumpkin.
If you plan to steam the custard on the stovetop, put water in a double-boiler and let it come to a boil as you finish the recipe.
If steaming the custard in the oven, boil water on the stovetop in a tea kettle or pot during preparation and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs well before adding the sugar and beating well. Add the vanilla and mix well. Add the pumpkin and stir thoroughly.
Pour in the half-and-half and mix well. Shake the cornstarch into the bowl and mix thoroughly. It is important to mix the starch in well because it can separate if not mixed completely.
Pour the custard either into individual ramekins, small tins or pie plates. A full recipe of the custard is enough to fill two standard pie plates.
If steaming on the stovetop, place the dish or dishes into the top section of the double-boiler. Cover (you can use aluminum foil if necessary). It should take about an hour to steam, until the center of the custard is set, if using full-size pans. Ramekins should take less time to set.
If steaming in the oven, pour the boiling water into a roaster pan, place a rack in the pan and then set the dish or dishes of custard on the rack. Cover with aluminum foil. It takes about 45 minutes to steam, until the center of the custard is set. Again, ramekins should take less time to set.
When finished, carefully remove the custard and cool.
Serve with a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.
16 oz. package rice noodles
Chicken, beef or seafood
Your choice of vegetables
1 tsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. vegetable oil
Fresh chili pepper, finely chopped (or powdered cayenne)
Fresh bean sprouts
Drop the rice noodles into a pot of boiling water and boil heavily until softened. Drain well when done.
Pour oil in a frying pan and heat.
Drop the egg into the frying pan and scramble. Set aside the egg and add the meat (chicken or beef sliced into strips) to the pan and fry.
Add the vegetables to the meat and stir-fry until tender. Add the egg back to the mix, then add the noodles, vinegar, soy sauce and chili pepper.
Toss it well to mix it together evenly.
To serve, sprinkle with crushed peanuts and fresh bean sprouts.