Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Recipe: Savory Custard

When I hear the word custard, I usually think of dessert first: a silky spice- and orange-infused confection, for example. But custard can also make a luscious savory course.

One easy way to flavor a savory custard is with a strong cheese, like a sharp cheddar or Parmesan. Less easy, but still pretty simple, is to infuse  the milk with herbs, dried mushrooms, or spices.  It's also possible to incorporate pureed or finely chopped vegetables (but I haven't tried this yet).

The photo above shows my most recent savory custard, a herb and porcini mushroom creation. To make them, I heated the milk to almost the boiling point, and then dropped in some dried porcini mushrooms, a small sprig of fresh rosemary, and a few branches of fresh thyme. I let it cool on its own, and then strained it into a mixing bowl.  I then picked out the rehydrated porcini pieces from the strainer, rinsed them in water, chopped them finely and added them back to the strained milk.  From that point on, I followed the recipe (skipping the straining step for obvious reasons). For the cheese, I used Parmesan and some random white cheese that was in my refrigerator (it was Gruyere, I think). Although the custard's texture was not ideal (I have a feeling that the added ingredients might have disrupted the formation of the internal network), it was delicious:  rich, a nice porcini aroma and flavor, and a subtle herb-y background.

Recipe - Cheese Custard
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison
(Unit conversion page)

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
Salt and pepper (use white pepper for the cleanest presentation)
1/2 cup grated cheese (your choice)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
Flavorings (herbs, spices, dried mushrooms, etc.)

  1. If infusing the milk with flavorings, heat the milk to nearly the boiling point, then add the infusing items. Let steep until the milk is cool, then strain into a mixing bowl.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 F (177 C).  Heat a some water to a simmer use as the water bath during baking.
  3. Butter four 1-cup ramekins or other heat proof dishes
  4. Stir the eggs into the cooled milk.  Add salt and pepper.  Strain (an optional step for the smoothest custard).
  5. Add the cheese and any solid ingredients to the milk and egg mixture and stir to combine.
  6. Pour into the baking cups.
  7. Place the baking cups in a large shallow dish (like a 9 x 13 Pyrex), put the dish on the rack in the preheated oven, then carefully pour hot water around the baking cups so that water goes about halfway up the sides of the custard base.
  8. Bake until the custard is set except for a small region in the center, about 20 minutes.
  9. Remove the cups from the water bath and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

  • Sprinkle chopped herbs on top of each unbaked ramekin of custard
  • Add pre-cooked vegetables to the custard base
  • Mix large chunks of cheese into the custard base (I haven't actually tried this, and have a feeling they will all sink to the bottom.  But the cheese might have the right density to float.)

Random link from the archive: Liking the Lichen
Technorati tags: Baking : vegetarian : Food

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Are California freeway exit numbers entering your consciousness?

Non-Californians bear with me as I look at a state-specific topic: exit numbers on the freeway.

More than a year ago, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) starting numbering exits on highways within the state. It was a big job. I-5, for example, begins with Exit 1A in San Diego and runs to Exit 796 in Hilt at the Oregon border. Big urban areas like Los Angeles and the S.F. Bay Area often have several exits in close proximity and so exits get As, Bs, and Cs to keep them apart.  As an illustration of this, check out this map of an area east of downtown Los Angeles (the green ovals are the exits).

But are Californians starting to internalize exit numbers?  I don't think so. Just the other day, my boss e-mailed directions to my office to a potential business partner. He did not give exit number, but instead called out the street name and direction. And I must admit that I don't know which exit I take to get to my office, nor which one I take to get home from work. (However, I do know the exit numbers I use to get to my parents' house in Michigan.)

Businesses and museums don't seem to be using exit numbers.  I checked the websites of a few major attractions and hotels in Los Angeles (e.g., LACMA, the Hammer Museum) and none of them gave exit numbers, but instead gave street names.

If you drive or give driving directions in California, do you use exit numbers? Have you seen commercial establishments or other establishments giving exit numbers? 

Photo of Last exit in the USA from scottfeldstein's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Liking the Lichen

Monday, March 02, 2009

Another thing Harold McGee taught me: fresh eggs are cloudy

The other day, I cracked open an egg from Glaum's Farm (organic, free range, member of CAFF) to use in a cookie recipe. The yolk was a searing yellow but the white was really cloudy. "Uh oh," I thought, "that doesn't look good."

So I went to my bookshelf and started looking in Harold McGee's wonderful On Food and Cooking (a book that should be on every serious cook's shelf) to find out what was going on with the cloudy egg white.

A cloudy white, it turns out, is actually a sign of freshness.  Take it away Harold McGee:
...the moment the egg leaves the hen, it begins to deteriorate in important ways. There is a fundamental chemical change: both the yolk and the white get more alkaline (less acidic) with time. This is because the egg contains carbon dioxide, which takes the form of carbonic acid when it's dissolved in the white and yolk, but is slowly lost in the gaseous form through the pores in the shell....

The alkalinzation of the white has highly visible consequences. Because albumen proteins at the pH of a fresh egg tend to cluster in masses large enough to deflect light rays, the white of a fresh egg is indeed cloudily white. In more alkaline conditions these proteins repel each other rather than cluster, so the white of an older egg tends to be clear, not cloudy. And the white gets progressively more runny with time: the proportion of thick albumen to thin, initially about 60% to 40%, falls below 50-50.

Random link from the archive: April 18, 1906

Technorati tag: Food