What can we do when commerce lets us down? We’ve all had the experience of having a pet recipe or favorite dish go by the boards when some manufacturer stops making the necessary ingredient. John Gray in Holden really liked the custard he used to make from a package of mix now no longer available. He asked if anyone had a good recipe for a one-pan, top-of-the-stove custard. We asked, and you sent suggestions and recipes.
Now I confess that I am sometimes stopped in my tracks when I have to dig out a pan and pour boiling water into it, then set custard cups in it or put the cups in first and set it on the oven rack and pour the boiling water in around them and do it all without slopping. The idea of a stove-top custard is really appealing.
According to all your letters, it is clear that custard makes memories, and not infrequently seems to be just the ticket when one feels unwell.
Betty Knight in Rockland wrote that she used to be a Jell-O package custard-maker until one day her friend Bev felt sick and called up to request custard. Betty took the recipe down as Bev read it from her sickbed. That recipe calls for baking the custard mixture in a casserole in a hot water bath, which certainly gets us around the little cups problem.
Lee Holmes in Sedgwick looked in her 60-year-old recipe collection where she found her mother’s custard recipe. She wrote that the custard was “the most memorable treat my mother ever made, a not-nearly-often-enough event when I was well, but always when I was sick — almost a reason to feign illness!”
Lois Farr writing from Dover-Foxcroft has a vivid memory of her grandmother’s custard cups now owned by her great-niece. “They are white on the inside, green on the outside, made of heavy pottery.” She said her mother and grandmother used to make this baked custard often.
Peg Hatch on Islesboro told me that her recipe came from her English grandmother, Phoebe Entwhistle Carter, who brought it from Blackburn, England, to Lincoln, R.I. Peg’s recipe is a stovetop version and produces a custardy sauce perfect for plum pudding or, as Peg recalled, stewed rhubarb.
The recipes all had very similar quantities of sugar, milk and eggs, called for vanilla and sometimes nutmeg. I have seen recipes that say that you can use cream or milk or cream and milk for a richer custard.
The one, though, which Mary-Elizabeth Russell sent from Rockport comes as close to the stovetop sort that John Gray was searching for. The Russells used to live year-round in Rockport but winter now in Florida; they’ve been back only two weeks so it was just luck that she saw the query. It came originally from Mary-Elizabeth’s 1968 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. It is a variation on a baked custard called “Stirred Custard.” You can cook the recipe either way, pouring it into custard cups and baking it in a hot-water bath, or following the instructions below and skipping the baking step.
I used a flame spreader under my double boiler and kept the water level below the top part. It takes awhile to get to custard phase, but the whole process takes less total time, though with the bake-in-water method you get to ignore it for about 40 minutes. Stirred custard thickens when cool but does not set up as baked custard does.
I hope this does the trick, neatly replacing the package custard. I expect it will be a long time before we can’t get eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla at the store.
Makes 5 to 6 servings.
3 slightly beaten eggs
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine all the ingredients except the vanilla and put into the top of a double boiler. Stirring the custard constantly though gently, cook over hot but not boiling water for about 20 minutes. The custard is done when it will coat the back of a spoon. Take it off the heat, and set the double boiler top into a pan of cold water and stir the custard for a couple more minutes, add the vanilla, and pour into custard cups to finish cooling.
Alternatively, you can scald the milk and add the other ingredients to it, and pour the mixture into custard cups to bake for 40 to 45 minutes in a boiling water bath in a 325 oven.