Friday, December 25, 2009

Saga of the Boiled Custard

I’ve read lots of Christmas stories that touch the heartstrings the past few days. I thought I would relate one that goes right to the gut. I refer to it as a saga, and that seems to fit. According to my American Heritage Talking Dictionary, the primary definition of saga is “a prose narrative usually written in Iceland between 1120 and 1400, dealing with the families that first settled Iceland and their descendants.” This saga deals with my family and the season in Tennessee that most resembles the climate of Iceland.

Since I was old enough to remember Christmas, I’ve always associated boiled custard with the holiday. My mother made it to serve after dinner. It was always eagerly awaited. We kids got the plain vanilla version (actually, it’s flavored with vanilla extract), but the adults joked about spiking theirs with a little hard stuff. Dad and my drinkin’ uncle, Wade, would venture out somewhere and return with a bottle in a brown bag. The Prohibition Era didn’t end until I was eight years old, and alcohol was still illegal in Tennessee until 1939.

People outside the South tend to confuse boiled custard with eggnog, which it definitely is not. For one thing, eggnog contains nutmeg while boiled custard is flavored with vanilla. And the “boiled” is a bit of a misnomer. When cooking the mixture, you bring it to the boiling point but only allow it to begin to bubble.

I continued the custom when I started my family, and all four of my kids love the stuff. I skipped the spiking routine as we enjoy the natural flavor. My brother also maintains the tradition. Now it has spread to the grandchildren, who are starting families of their own.

At my house we always used a recipe that made well over a gallon of custard. We used the double boiler method, cooking it in a can sitting in a larger pot of boiling water. When it was finished, we poured the mixture in two large glass jars. This led to one of the popular stories surrounding the annual rite. When a nearly-full jar cracked one year, we faced a dilemma. It was too precious a commodity to pour out. Nobody wanted to risk glass silvers in their custard, but we had nothing like cheesecloth to use as a strainer. We finally used a pair of my wife’s pantyhose. Worked like a charm.

The original recipe was lost, but we recreated it as best we could. It involves 16 eggs, separated; a gallon of whole milk; 6 tablespoons of flour, sifted; 2 cups sugar; a pinch of salt; and vanilla flavoring to taste (about 4 tablespoons for us). First you scald the milk. Combine sugar, flour and salt, which are added to the beaten egg yolks. Then add the milk. Stir constantly in the double boiler until it coats the spoon and starts to bubble. After the mixture has cooled (we set the jars outside on the patio table back when the temperature was in the 40s), beat the egg whites and fold into the custard. Add vanilla.

It’s a smooth, thick drink that’s dee-licious.

The only problem has been that it takes forever to reach the boiling point. We started using a thermometer to check it, and the best we could get was around 208 to 210 degrees. This year one of my daughters found a new recipe that doesn’t use a double boiler. It calls for only 10 eggs, 2½ cups of sugar, 1 gallon of milk, and vanilla extract. The recipe did not separate the eggs and cooked the mixture on the stove top. We tried it tonight (Christmas Eve), and the jury is still out as it cools. But it created another semi-disaster.

The recipe said to stir constantly until the mixture thickens and coats a spoon and begins to bubble a little. In contrast to the old method that required stirring for more than an hour, we found this one takes only 30 minutes. However, when it “begins to bubble a little,” beware if the mixture is anywhere near the top of the pot. It suddenly foamed up and over the sides. I grabbed it off the burner, nearly burning my fingers. Fortunately our stove has a glass cooking surface so the mixture didn’t run down inside. But the hot burner cooked the egg mixture into crusty black strips that were the devil to clean off. It ran down the sides of the stove also.

We still had a little over a gallon of boiled custard to serve after Christmas dinner. It doesn’t seem as thick as the kind with beaten egg whites, but hopefully it’ll be good. Sure did take a lot less effort. I wonder if it’ll be like writing novels? A little extra effort can make a big difference. We’ll see.

I hope today is a magnificent Christmas at your house, and next week will bring you a glorious New Year. Boiled custard of not.


Morgan Mandel said...

I've never heard of it, but looks beautiful and sounds yummy.

Morgan Mandel

Chester Campbell said...

It turned out great. Everyone thought the new recipe was as good as the old one. So the tradition marches on.