Baking for Bookworms: Vanilla Custard from Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches

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So I normally don’t take baking posts from descriptions of food, but this custard was part of a really provocative description, and I couldn’t resist.

The custard is mention in reference to a particularly amazing bottle of wine. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a wine that reminded me of vanilla custard, but I know I would be down for it if I found one:

“The wine’s sweet flavors exploded in my mouth. Apricot and vanilla custard from the kitchen ladies tumbled across my tongue, and my mouth tingled with them long after I’d swallowed. It was like drinking magic.”                147

What I love about this passage is the way it connects food and smells and flavors to memories. Sometimes the memories find us without much prompting–immediate and unbidden–but this is a clever way for Harkness to reinforce character development while also providing a description of a magical bottle of wine.

You might not have access to a bottle of wine quite that good, but you can definitely make some vanilla custard.

Vanilla custard is also known as pastry cream (as in the delicious filling that goes into all those amazing French desserts), but don’t let its French background intimidate you. This recipe is actually pretty simple and pretty quick. I’ve made pastry cream quite a bit, but I was really impressed by the ease of this recipe–it’s definitely my new go-to.

Vanilla Custard recipe from this video by Desserts101.

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 4 oz sugar (about 2/3-3/4 cup)
  • vanilla bean (go for it if you’ve got a special occasion, or 1 tsp vanilla paste or pure extract)
  • 1 whole egg
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons butter

In a sauce pan over medium heat, simmer the milk, a few tablespoons of the sugar, and the vanilla until the milk just comes to a boil. While you’re waiting for the milk, mix the eggs, cornstarch and the remaining sugar with a whisk until combined.

When the milk is almost boiling, take it off the heat. Begin whisking the eggs and while whisking quickly (the entire time!), add a small stream of the milk until totally mixed together. If you don’t add the milk slowly, the heat will scramble your eggs.

Return the whole mixture to the sauce pan over medium heat and whisk constantly until the mixture thickens to a pudding-like consistency (about 3-5 minutes). Take it off the heat, and add the butter, whisking until it’s incorporated.

Put your mixture through a sieve to get out any lumpy bits of egg. Pour into a fairly shallow dish and cover with plastic wrap, pushing the plastic wrap into custard so that it doesn’t form a skin.

Immediately transfer the custard to the refrigerator (you’ve just basically pasteurized your eggs, but if the mixture cools too slowly, the bacteria can get back in). Chill for at least one hour before using however you please.

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You can make these cute Boston cream pie bites like I did (sugar cookie dough baked in mini-muffin tins to form cups, add pastry cream and chocolate ganache on top), eat the cream with some whipped cream on top and serve with fruit for a tasty dessert, or you can use this recipe to make cream puffs, eclairs, or anything that catches your fancy.

 

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