Lately, I have dreamt in custard. Lying in bed last night, I could have sworn I could smell the faint boozy hum of vanilla, the richness of eggs and cream. It’s not surprising. Over the last month, custard and I have become pretty well – if reluctantly – acquainted.
This week I’ve been working on a cookbook photo-shoot that, aside from requiring us to roast a goose and boil two Christmas puddings during the headline-grabbing London heatwave, and battle with multiple butter-seeping pastries, has also meant making custard. A lot of custard. It has seen me standing over vats of custard, agitating them neurotically, and praying that I do not ruin them. You see, the thing is, I have form in this area. About a month ago, I was cooking for a supper club which needed three litres of custard to stuff into tiny, adorable choux pastry buns. And I broke it. Before my eyes, and under my whisk, three litres of custard curdled in a moment. It is hard to describe the bum-clenching horror of realising that I have split a twenty-yolk batch of custard, that no amount of judicious sieving will save. I thought leaving law for baking would reduce my anxiety. Not where custard’s concerned, it seems.
So it seems at best perverse that on my day off, I found myself, at home, stood over my own stove, quietly making yet another batch of custard. A sensible person, perhaps, would have invested in a family sized bag of crisps and a new box set, but I was determined. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I’ve finally cracked custard. I think I’ve done it. In place of the trembling, cautious, eyes-closed-whisk-stirring panic of the last few weeks, is an almost disconcerting calm and confidence in my own capabilities. So I did what any normal person would do with new-found custard courage: I set about preparing the best ice cream I’ve ever made.
This ice cream is, in short, glorious. It really does taste of earl grey. If you can’t resist dipping a sly finger into the custard mix, don’t panic if it seems too sweet; this will be lost when frozen, and the citrussy notes of the earl grey will sing, with just the slightest lingering bitter note of tea leaves. It tastes grown up and comforting and refreshing all at once. And there is a real joy in the ingredients being pretty damn close to those of an actual cup of sweet earl grey, with eggs being the only real meaningful addition. Do use light brown sugar if you can: it adds a slightly caramelly complexity, and also turns the ice cream the colour of milky tea.
It turns out that, as with most things in life, the key to custard is not to panic. In the face of custard crisis, take it slowly, and be patient. Don’t worry that the liquid isn’t thickening, and turn up the heat as a consequence: the custard should not bubble. Keep the heat as low as possible, stir, stir, stir, and all will be well. Have faith. Also, really whisk your sugar and eggs together vigorously until noticeably light and foamy. This is as equally important as the above, but didn’t really fit in will with my little life metaphor.
In celebration of my custard triumph, I made shortbread to go with the ice cream. And I’m so glad it did. This too is earl grey, but the two together complement rather than overwhelm. This is my favourite shortbread recipe; the base is the same as my honey and sea salt shortbread, and is a breeze to make.
Note: I give instructions below for making this with and without an ice cream maker. However, ice cream maker instructions vary so widely that I’ve simply said ‘follow the manufacturer’s instructions’, but this comes with a caveat: my manufacturer’s instructions require freezing the inner compartment for at least four hours before use, so don’t be caught out. Freeze in advance, if necessary.
It goes like this:
Earl grey ice cream and shortbread
Makes: Just over a pint of ice cream and 8 portions of shortbread
Takes: 1 hour plus 4 hours of freezing
Bakes: 20 minutes on the hob; 25 minutes in the oven
For the ice cream:
300ml double cream
80g light brown sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
5 tea bags of earl grey (about 10g loose tea)
5 egg yolks (refrigerate the whites, and try making these meringues biscuits or banana friands)
For the shortbread:
70g caster sugar, plus an extra sprinkling
Pinch of salt
160g Plain flour
50g Rice flour
2 tea bags’ worth of earl grey tea leaves
1. First, infuse your cream and milk. Snip the teabags and pour the tea leaves into the cream. Bring the cream gently up to the boil. At the first sign of bubbles, turn off the heat and leave for thirty minutes. Do not taste: it is bitter as hell, and a real disappointment. Onwards.
2. Meanwhile, you can make shortbread. If you have a food processor, whiz all the ingredients until blended. It will still be very crumbly, but will come together if pressed. If you don’t, rub the ingredients together with your hands until it resembles breadcrumbs. Pour it into your tin or mould, and press until compacted. I like to use a tart plate, like the sort I’d make quiche in, because it gives lovely fluted edges. If it doesn’t have a removable base, pop a round of baking paper on the bottom with edges to help you lift it out. Chill for fifteen minutes.
3. It’s probably about time to make the custard. Strain the cream through butter muslin or a really fine sieve. Reheat the cream until it is just shy of a boil. Whisk together the sugar and egg yolks in a separate bowl until they are lighter in colour and thicker in texture, falling in ribbons from the whisk. Add a dash of vanilla extract. Pour a quarter of the liquid into the sugar and eggs, whisking the whole time. Add the rest of the liquid, still whisking, and then return the whole thing to the pan. Cook very gently, stirring all the time with a spatula, constantly moving the liquid on the bottom of the pan. Cook until the custard has thickened so that it covers the back of a metal spoon. First, the tiny bubbles will disappear, start testing on the back of a metal spoon when this has happened. The liquid will break apart in little spots on the spoon: this means that the eggs haven’t properly coagulated yet. When they do, there will be no spots, and you can run a finger down the back of the spoon, and a clean break will form between the sides of the liquid. You have custard!
4. Decant into a fridge-appropriate container, and cover with clingfilm, which should directly touch the surface of the custard. Chill.
5. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees. Remove the shortbread from the fridge and prick all over with a fork. Sprinkle with a handful of caster sugar, and bake for 25 minutes. When the shortbread comes out of the oven, immediately, but carefully, slice into eight wedges using a sharp knife. Allow to cool completely.
6. If you have an ice cream maker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If not. Pop the custard into the freezer and, at half hourly intervals, stirring vigorously, breaking up the ice crystals. Keep doing this until the ice cream is frozen hard. Depending on the ferocity of your freezer, you may need to take the ice cream out about twenty minutes before serving, if you want big, handsome boules.
7. Ta dah!
Icing on the Cake
We ate this pair together as the soon as the ice cream had frozen, before I’d even prepared dinner, unable to wait. They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a gorgeous pairing, but really zesty lemon shortbread would be very good too, maybe with poppyseeds. And I can also confirm that, in a moment of despair on a too-hot Tuesday evening, a scoop of this ice cream, sandwiched between two fat cookies packed with very dark chocolate and pistachios, is magical and restorative stuff.