Kitchen chemistry is a favorite in our house -- after all, learning is more fun if there's a yummy treat at the end. I started experimenting with custard recipes while researching the chemistry of eggs. Eggs do such fascinating things in baking, and this recipe is both simple enough for kids to tackle (mostly) on their own, and a great example of how heat can make egg proteins turns a liquid into a solid. Plus, these rich, delicious custards are the perfect family brunch dish!
How we did it:
- eggs (3 large)
- sugar (1/2 cup)
- salt (1/2 tsp)
- milk (2 cups) - or 1 cup milk, 1 cup half-and-half
- vanilla (3/4 tsp)
- ground nutmeg (optional)
- berries (optional)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, gather up your ingredients and your baking dishes. You can bake these custards in just about any oven-safe dish. I used assorted ceramic ramekins. If you can't find dishes the same size (like me), it'll work fine, you'll just need to watch them a little more closely while they're baking because a smaller dish will bake faster than a larger one. You'll also need to find a cake pan or casserole dish large enough for the ramekins to fit into -- more on that later!
Measure out 2 cups of whatever dairy you're using and set it over low heat. You want to heat it to where it's just starting to steam but not boiling. While the milk is heating, mix the eggs, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk until they're just blended together.
The nice thing about this recipe is that it'll work with just about anything you have on hand: lowfat milk, whole milk, half-and-half, or even cream. Aside from being delicious, using a higher-fat dairy product also makes the recipe more forgiving. The less fat you use, the lower the temperature at which the custard will become lumpy and unappetizing, which means a low-fat custard is very easy to ruin by over-baking. To give us a good chance of success, we used a mixture of whole milk and half-and-half.
When the milk is hot, slowly add it to the egg mixture, whisking all the while. If you add it too fast, you might cook your eggs! Keep stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. When it's all mixed, add the vanilla.
Now you're ready to prepare your water bath. You need something that's deep enough so that you can fill with water that reaches about halfway up the sides of your custards. (I used a large cake pan.) Place a kitchen towel in the bottom of the pan, then place the ramekins on top. The towel will help prevent the bottom of your custards from getting too hot and overcooking.
Pour your custard mixture into the ramekins. With this recipe, you'll get about 6 small custards, or 2 small and 2 large custards. If you like, add a little fresh-grated nutmeg over the top.
Water bath time! This is crucial for making sure that your custards don't get too hot as they bake. The best way to to do this is to place the pan in the oven first, then use a tea kettle or pitcher to pour hot water into the pan. (Hot water from the tap is fine.) Fill the pan until the water reaches 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up the sides of the custards.
Then set the timer for 30 minutes if you're making small custards, 40 minutes if you're making large ones.
When the timer goes off, check to see if the custards are done. They probably won't be done until more like 40-50 minutes, but checking early helps make sure you don't leave them in too long.
How do you know when they're done? Most recipes I found say to look for the custard to be set, but still jiggly in the middle. Personally, I find it really hard to tell the difference between too jiggly or too hard, so I always use an instant-read thermometer. When the custards reach 165 to 170 degrees F in the middle, they're done.
Of course, removing a water bath from the oven is easier said than done, and is most definitely a grownup step. You can pick up the whole pan slowly and carefully, or use large metal tongs to lift the custards out of the bath first.
Let your custards cool on the countertop for about 30 minutes, then refrigerate until cold. If you like, top with some fresh berries, then serve with a smile!
What’s going on?When cool, egg proteins are shaped like tightly packed balls, kind of like a long string that’s been crumpled up. As the custard mixture heats up, the egg proteins unfurl. As more heat is added these long protein strands being to grab onto to each other. Eventually, a mesh of protein strands is formed. The fat, sugar, and liquids are trapped in the pockets in between the strands, forming the lovely delicious texture of a perfectly baked custard.