Why I am afraid of custard
Custard ... the food of fear. Photo: Natalie Boog
I’m not afraid of spiders. I’m not afraid of walking home alone in the dark after a night out in my inner-city neighbourhood. I’m not afraid of heights. I’m not afraid of getting old.
I am afraid of custard. Custard and I have history. Custard gives me flashbacks. Spotting that word in a recipe, and I’m back there, back in that big, lonely house in the forest. Just me and her. Me and that crazy old woman.
This is a true story.
Living in London in the ’90s, I’d taken a career detour, enrolling in a three-month cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu in Marylebone. I was young and stupid. I’d read of the exotic lives of graduates — the private cooking jobs with wealthy families, becoming part of the family, joining them on private jets and Caribbean holidays and more fun to be had than kitchen labour.
I’ve just hauled my old Cordon Bleu notes out of a box to jolt my memory… page after page of recipes and instructions and little diagrams I drew to illuminate techniques — how to fold and cut holes in the pastry for Bouchées d’Escargots Aux Champignons (puff pastry with snails), how to roll the butter for Buerre Maître d'Hôtel (parsley butter), how to put a fancy scroll pattern on the top of Pommes De Terre Biarritz (sort of a potato puree with diced ham and capsicum). Even back then much of the course was from another time. Turned vegetables and melon baskets and a repertoire of fusty sauces (sauce soubise, sauce supreme, sauce espagnole).
None of it prepared me for the cooking jobs I would go on to do. I signed up with a cooking agency and accepted two short-term cooking positions. I’m still in therapy for the first of them — a month in remote northern Scotland with a wealthy English family holidaying on their sporting estate. (Think wild salmon, venison, grouse … think haughty mistress, mystifying Aga oven, back-breaking labour and a disaster with a quiche so immense that the thought of it can still reduce me to a quivering foetal position... a story for another day...)
From Scotland and on to Belgium. To a massive and rundown house in a forest near Waterloo. Mid-century, Frank Lloyd Wrightish; skittish deer; a sculpture garden; an algal bloom of an indoor swimming pool; a basement room filled with tarnished silver (candelabras, goblets, platters, pots). And a Belgian countess. Decrepit, eccentric, Miss-Havisham-like, largely bedridden. Her husband had left her, her sons lived abroad. I was to become her cook, chauffeur and, a role I had not been prepared for, her bedpan emptier. Just me, Miss Havisham, a daily visit from a taciturn housekeeper and that big lonely spooky house.
It’s so long ago now and my memory is fuzzy on what I cooked. I remember peeling and slicing nectarines and peaches and arranging them prettily on a plate for her breakfast. I think I remember making soups and simple meals of grilled meats and vegetables.
I do remember, vividly remember, making crème brûlée for the countess. Perhaps I volunteered — to tempt her invalid appetite. More likely though, she asked for it. Because why would I have volunteered for the awfulness that followed.
“You curdled the crème brûlée ,” the tiny mean little figure spat at me from her pillowed position. “Take it away. How dare you bring me a dish like this.” She was venomously angry. Demanded a replacement dessert. “Oh cut me some fruit,” she hissed.
Back in the kitchen, tremblingly cutting up fruit, I considered the extent of my failure. I had known that my crème brûlée had some issues but I had tried to pretend otherwise. And I had knowingly served curdled crème brûlée to a countess. In the realm of cooking disasters surely this was a guillotine-able offence. There was some sobbing in the sculpture garden. A vow to renounce all ideas of a career as a cook. A decision never to make custard of any description ever again.
I have kept my vows of custard abstinence. Until last weekend. In a moment of insanity I buckled. Determined to face my fear and in the grip of ludicrous over-confidence I laid out a Jamie Oliver recipe on my kitchen bench. Madness!
I heated milk and cream and the seeds from a vanilla pod in a saucepan. In my old Sunbeam Mixmaster I whisked eggs and sugar until they were pale. I slowly added the heated milk-cream mixture to the whisked eggs-sugar. I steadied my nerves with a glass of wine. Things were looking promising. There wasn’t a trace of curdling; in fact, quite the opposite. The custard seemed to have thickened not at all. No matter, I reassured myself, it will thicken as it cooks. I poured it over the buttered hot-cross bun slices (salvaged thriftily from the freezer; a substitute for the panettone suggested in the recipe). I put the dish in a water bath in the oven.
My hot-cross-bun-bread-and-butter-pudding would be a triumph, I congratulated myself. The grated mandarin zest a masterstroke! I toasted myself with another glass of wine (really, champagne was called for, I thought).
I checked it at the 30-minute mark. Clearly it needed more time. The liquid had not set. Again at 45 minutes. I checked my oven temperature dial. I checked the recipe. Decided to give it another 15 minutes. At the hour mark, I realised I had to admit defeat. The pudding’s top was charring while, underneath, my “custard” merrily slopped from side to side. I had created bread-and-butter soup. I am a dessert disaster zone. A custard failure.
It’s taken a few days but I’m calm now. The medication has helped and I’m practising breathing techniques. I’ve also consulted Stephanie Alexander. Telling me that “the temperature at which an egg coagulates, ‘sets’ or cooks varies according to a number of factors” wasn’t especially helpful. But I like this advice: “I encourage all cooks to cook a custard to curdling point deliberately once in order to appreciate just how thick a custard can become before it curdles. In my experience, most cooks are nervous about making custards and do not cook them long enough.”