I like to think of myself as competent in matters of baking and pastry — I can whip up pie crusts, scones, and fluffy biscuits with relative ease, and have thoroughly enjoyed my adventures in breadmaking, which include recent (as yet successful) forays into the world of sourdough. But when it comes to custards, and eggs, and things that must ‘set,’ I have a rocky history.
It comes down to the directions — the part where pleasantly vague instructions read to me like Beowolf translated into Chinese:
“You’ll know the mixture is ready when it coats the back of a spoon.”
“Remove from heat when a rubber spatula scraped on the bottom of the pan leaves a trail.”
“Heat until thickened slightly, but don’t let the mixture come to a simmer.”
These are directions which only leave me with more questions: What kind of spoon? Should it coat it and then stay coated for ten seconds? How long should the trail remain trail-like? What do you mean by thick — pudding, or heavy cream? Should it simmer? Not simmer? WHAT THE @&%# DO YOU MEAN??????
I have tried twice to make creme anglaise, and both times, while it tasted delicious, I don’t think it was the consistency it was meant to be. Another time, I was baking a pie for a friend of ours; he requested lemon meringue, so I gave it a go. The meringue was beautiful, but when you cut into the pie the lemon filling spilled like soup onto the plate. In all of those cases, I was either under- or over-cooking the egg mixture (or wasn’t I? can’t be sure). What I need the cookbook authors to give me is a temperature. Because, although I can obviously lead myself into a frenzy of self-doubt when it comes to matters of texture, I am also quite well-versed in my ability to stick an instant-read thermometer into something, and read the numbers that result.
This is why I have loved using David’s ice cream book: he gives you a goal temperature when cooking eggs for french-style ice creams. For some reason, though, he wasn’t feeling as generous when it came to instructions for the lemon curd (is he being coy? Does he know the pain this can cause?). I mixed everything together, watched my butter cubes melt, and stirred. And stirred. And it thickened, but never reached a point when it became “jelly-like.” Nor did it come to a state when I could “lift the whisk and the mixture [held] its shape when it [fell] back into the saucepan.” So, after whisking for a pretty ridiculous amount of time, I decided to call it done. I strained it into a bowl, and let it cool.
I don’t know if what I have is what lemon curd should be like — it seems so, but the color is paler than I expected. But it tastes good. It’s decidedly egg-y — which can be off-putting to some, even me on some days. But after the first bite, I embrace the egg-y-ness and move on to the lemon-ness. It’s quite the treat, spread on a thick piece of broiled and buttered hearth bread. A great after-school snack (for me, that is, after my kids go to school).
If you enjoy cooking curds, creams, and custards, give it a whirl; if you have success, send me some pointers. Because on my bucket list is a line that reads, “master egg-based dessert sauces,” and, with a birthday approaching that puts me uncomfortably close to that label known as “middle-aged,” you never know how much time I have.