Monday, February 27, 2012

Milk, Eggs and Sugar

I told myself that this would be a blog strictly for needlework, but when my obsession with such a magical combination was unleashed, it could not be stopped.

The British call it custard, but this delicate yet versatile ingredient trio appears under several other names and forms: creme anglaise, creme caramel, creme brulee, zuppa inglese (Italian), kogel mogel (Polish), 鲜奶炖蛋 (steamed egg pudding sometimes served with ginger, Chinese), iles flotants (French)... A most simple dish, so often associated with comfort, warmth and childhood, that can be so fiendishly tricky to prepare. (Of course, depending on which form you choose to make!) The difficulty lies in pouring the hot milk mixture into the egg and beating it in such a way that a silky consistency is achieved, without curdling the eggs by applying the heat too fast. On the other hand, there is also the more stalwart kogel mogel: often constituted of raw egg, milk and sugar, beat till light and fluffy, then consumed over fresh strawberries or similar fruit.

Of course, one could argue on the side of shop bought custard or the powdered variety (a tip of the hat to Mr. Bird), but if you have the time and, like me, absolutely adore the challenge of a custard with such a rewarding end, there seems to be no end of delectable adventures in the kitchen. That being said, I do love custard... so whether presented with shop-bought, home-made or Mr Bird's, I find no sides to take.

I am not British, neither did I grow up in Britain (though I was brought up on Enid Blyton). My love for custard began with my grandaunt's creme caramel... sitting at her glass table slowly savouring every spoonful, ensuring optimum levels of caramel sauce and creme before I could put it in my mouth. It's funny how things stay with you like that. Now at university I have the freedom of my own kitchen, the luxury of time, and 6 housemates eager to eat whatever I cook.

My journey begins with this:
How to Cook Perfect Custard Sauce (Felicity Cloake - The Guardian)

As one of the commenters observed, it is good to know that so many people have something to say about custard!
But I am not finicky about how custard is made (waste not, want not!) so I'm seeking another challenge.

I was reading through the comments and was thinking about what to do with leftover egg whites (the usual meringue, pavlova and macaroons were suggested), and one particular name caught my eye: LANGUE DE CHAT.

Langue de chat! The same biscuit my grandaunt (the queen of creme caramel) makes every Chinese New Year, only then I knew them as Cat's Tongue Biscuits. Langue de chat! Food is only as good as the joy and memories associated with them, and these biscuits are made of childhood dreams for me!

I found this recipe and was very eager to start... but wait... If I was going to make custard, what about all those other custard cousins? Further reading led me to the sabayon, which lit a bulb in my memory: I recently watched Raymond Blanc: The Very Hungry Frenchman, where the chef visits his home county and cooks there for the very first time. His dessert was cherries in kirsch, topped with sabayon and sugar, then gently scorched.

Sabayon led me to zabaglione, which led me to kogel mogel (Thanks, Wikipedia!). This is another dish of memories... a family vacation to Poland, a simple restaurant, and a dessert: just like grandma used to make, according to the waiter (who was undeniably good-looking and said 'kogel mogel' in a rather satisfying manner). I found a beautiful blog which featured this recipe and this gorgeous image:

According to her, kogel mogel is just like sabayon/ zabaglione, only without the Marsala. Hmm... flavoured with honey or rum? Also used sometimes as a health remedy? And... what's this? Sometimes BAKED?

My gastronomic heart was melting already.

And then... one of the commenters on the Guardian article (mentioned earlier) spoke of iles flotants... so of course I had to look that up too:

I thought I'd died and achieved custard nirvana. Imagine this, served very simply as the white island in the custard sauce, topped with a little caramel shard and a very tiny dusting of cinnamon or nutmeg for presentation.

Finally, a little homage to something a little closer to home: 鲜奶炖蛋

A humble pudding made of a custard base which is then steamed to a light, silken tofu-like consistency, not too sweet, very smooth, and very, very easy to make. A pudding one would make for children, but secretly enjoyed by adults.

The recipe I found was in Mandarin, so here is the translated version:

2 eggs
30g sugar (or to taste)
250ml milk

Preheat your steamer. Beat the eggs well. Heat the milk gently but do not boil. Pour the heated milk into the eggs, add the sugar, then beat some more. Pour into ramekins/ heatproof bowls (for individual servings). Use a spoon to remove any bubbles (but if you're in a hurry and don't care how it looks, this doesn't matter). Steam these for 12 minutes. (Be careful when opening your steamer after preheating... use a dishcloth/ oven glove!)
At this point I got too hungry so I stopped looking at recipes... though I will certainly try some of these in the near future! But what blew me away the most after this little web adventure was how such a simple trio of ingredients could produce such a massive array of desserts!

Three things anyone would have ready at hand.

Three ingredients across many cultures.

A peace treaty on a plate.

And my favourite food.

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