For this month’s recipes on cooking from the pantry, I use the word “pantry” loosely: it encompasses foods you keep on hand in your cupboards, your freezer, your refrigerator, and perhaps even boxes under your bed. With these basic ingredients, you can pull together dishes with little notice or effort, whether for breakfast, dinner—or now dessert.
Baked custard is a childhood favorite. My grandmother made it as an afterschool snack for me and my sister—and apparently for my mom, because I have it on an old recipe card in her first cursive writing. Custard needs such simple ingredients that even though you can make it from the cheapest milk and eggs on the shelf, local farm-fresh ingredients will take it to another level—one you can taste and see, thanks to a golden yolk. Rice pudding, a more filling variation on the custard theme, has the added benefit of using up leftovers.
Golden Baked Custard
1/4 cup ultrafine sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
pinch of ground nutmeg
Scald the milk by heating it in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring often, just until bubbles appear around the edge; remove from the heat. Beat the egg in a medium bowl until just blended. Stir in the sugar and salt. Pour in the hot milk very slowly, stirring constantly. Stir in the vanilla.
Place four 4- to 6-ounce custard cups or ramekins in an 8- by 8-inch or larger pan, ensuring they don’t touch one another or the pan sides. Divide the liquid among the custard cups; sprinkle with nutmeg. Carefully pour hot water into the pan around the custard cups until the level of the water is even with the level of the custard, and transfer to the middle rack of the oven, checking once it’s settled that the cups still don’t touch. Bake at 350°F for 40–45 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center of a custard comes out clean. Cool to room temperature, and then chill in the refrigerator, if desired, until ready to serve. Serves 4.
Tips & Tricks
- I think whole milk gives the best flavor, but my grandmother sometimes made it with low-fat milk and sometimes with cream; she just used what was in her fridge. Avoid skim milk, which will make this dish watery with so little egg.
- Ultrafine sugar blends in easily, but you can substitute standard granulated sugar if that’s what you have on hand. Vanilla sugar (see below) can stand in for both the sugar and the vanilla.
- The hardest part about this recipe is pouring in the hot milk slowly enough to keep the egg from curdling. If you’re concerned about slopping in too much at a time, return the scalded milk to the cup you used for measuring so that you can pour more steadily.
- Want to upscale this recipe? Add a caramel coating, and you have flan. Melt 1/2 cup of granulated sugar in the heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until it becomes a rich golden caramel. Pour quickly into the custard cups, tilting each so that the caramel lightly coats the bottom and up the sides. Bake the custard in the coated dishes, and then thoroughly chill before loosening with a knife, flipping onto a plate, and serving.
Twice as Tasty
My first memorable rice pudding was pulled by a Peace Corps volunteer from the oven of her large but sparse Moroccan kitchen. I can’t recall now whether it was surprisingly delicious or just shocking that she could make a dessert with a handful of leftover ingredients on short notice. But it left an impression amid a trip full of colorful experiences and meals.
Once back in the States, I realized her pudding looked a lot like my grandmother’s custard. The not-so-secret ingredient is the rice, which gives the dish a creamy yet slightly chewy texture and makes each serving quite filling. I’ve tried versions that use raw rice, but you need to bake the pudding about twice as long, stirring it occasionally. I’ve also tried stovetop, eggless versions, which need even more tending and don’t develop a golden top “crust.” Every time, I return to my variation on that first recipe, baking leftover rice in milk and egg.
Baked Rice Pudding
1-1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 cup cooked sushi or other white rice
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
In a medium bowl, beat the three eggs, and then mix in the milk and melted butter. Stir in the rice and raisins, if using. Add the spices, mixing well. Pour the mixture into a buttered 8- by 8-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the top with additional ground nutmeg, if desired. Bake at 375°F for 45–60 minutes, until the custard sets. Serves 4.
Tips & Tricks
- As with Golden Baked Custard, I generally use whole milk in this recipe. Low-fat milk would work, but you should still avoid nonfat milk. For an ultrarich pudding, substitute heavy cream for half of the milk.
- Rice pudding handily uses leftover rice without making you feel like you’re eating leftovers. I prefer unseasoned sushi rice, partly for the texture and partly because the first time I made sushi, the recipe said, “Sushi rice only lasts one day, and should never be kept and served again at a later stage.” But any white rice works—except instant rice, which breaks down too quickly.
- I keep homemade vanilla sugar in my kitchen: it’s just a little jar of granulated sugar with a vanilla bean buried in it (after scraping out the seeds for a recipe, you can bury just the pod). You can always use plain granulated sugar and add a bit of pure vanilla extract.
- You can eat this dessert as is, or you can dress it up with a drizzle of honey and sprinkling of orange or lemon zest. In summer, garnish it with raspberries or other seasonal fruit and fresh mint leaves.
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Tried & True
These tools and supplies may help you make the recipes in this post:
- You can bake custards in any small cups or bowls as long as they can handle oven temperatures. I’ve been transitioning from plastic to glass storage containers in my kitchen, so I sometimes use the custard cups that came with this set. The pans in the set aren’t large enough to hold four cups, but a 8-inch square Pyrex dish will do the trick; it also works for baking your rice pudding.
- If you’re buying ramekins to bake custards, consider getting a set that comes with a pan and support to keep the ramekins from sitting directly on the pan, like this.
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