Healing Food

Baked Custard: tried and true

Terry Barr
Apr 13, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by RAPHAEL MAKSIAN on Unsplash

hen it gets down to it, I think I’ve cooked only three desserts in my life: Bread Pudding, Apricot Brandy Pound Cake, and Baked Custard.

I never thought of myself as a baking kind of chef, maybe because I have chosen to keep the emptier calories away from my door, and more crucially, my mouth/stomach. Besides, while I am inventive with sauces and cajun stews, I feared I would never be able to duplicate all the intricate pies, cakes, and puddings my mother made over our lifetime together.

Oh God, her caramel cake; her chocolate or lemon icebox pie; her Charlotte Russe, Roulage, pecan pie, and apple cake.

Thankfully, my wife learned to concoct the Roulage before my mother passed, and she does it so well now that our entire family and her entire women’s group looks to this untrained-in-cooking Persian woman for their yuletide treat.

But I’ve chosen the easier desserts, or rather, they have chosen me.

The Bread Pudding, I had to learn because it screams, as I do often, NEW ORLEANS.

The pound cake takes me back to Sunday afternoons when I didn’t mind taking in calories, a heavy slice coming on the heels of a Sunday roast beef lunch, with at least three vegetables in casserole form, homemade rolls, and some kind of potato (scalloped with cheese preferably).

But the Baked Custard hit me in one of those moments I can’t forget, one where all the pressure of my mother’s tastes and standards was on. Me.

My mother was the sort of person who liked to stand over me as I performed any task she assigned. Ask my brother, but if she said make the bed, there had better not be one tiny wrinkle. If she said get some soap and water, and clean the baseboards, there had better not be one scuff mark left.

For God’s sakes, when she said rake the leaves in the front yard, if there was one renegade leaf hiding near or under the boxwood, she’d find that leaf and ask “what on earth” I thought I was doing “calling myself finished.”

What on earth, indeed.

How many times when I tried to do something would I hear her say,

“That ain’t right,” or “That ain’t no good.”

My mother was a talented, amateur artist. And once, I tried to take lessons from her.

Once.

For God’s sakes, when she said rake the leaves in the front yard, if there was one renegade leaf hiding near or under the boxwood, she’d find that leaf and ask “what on earth” I thought I was doing “calling myself finished.”

So yes, she had high standards, and yes, she loved and was proud of me. And yesterday, when I almost screwed up the Apricot Brandy pound cake, I heard her saying,

“What are you doing? You have to cream the butter and sugar first!”

The cake turned out fine: it both looked and tasted incredibly good, and I think she would have been proud of me on both counts. For as she said,

“You eat with your eyes, first.”

back to the custard.

I was visiting her one week a few years back, as she had been in the hospital rather unexpectedly because the doctors had seen a lump in one of her lungs. They had to insert a scope down her throat to check everything out, and while the lump was operable and ultimately successfully removed with radiation, the scope tore up her throat and left her miserable for a few days.

When I brought her home from the hospital — and this was before the radiation procedure — she couldn’t eat anything. The anesthesia had also done a number on her, and so she was weak, nauseous, and her throat was killing her.

I can do so many things and have tended successfully to the health and growth of my two daughters. But watching my mother sit in her recliner moaning in pain made me feel as helpless as when I couldn’t sweep up or scrub those muddy footprints I left on our best living room carpet back when I was five.

“What can I do to help you, Mom?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she’d say in a seemingly endless series of responses.

Finally, though, she did know:

“You can make me some baked custard. Have you ever made it before?”

No, I hadn’t.

“I’ll tell you what to do.”

Normally, if I had set out on my own to make such a dish, I would have felt a bit unsure of myself, but I’d know that I’d likely succeed, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be hurting anyone or anything. No one, in fact, would have to know of my failure. And truly, I have rarely ever failed in the kitchen, though with that odd way I creamed the butter and sugar yesterday (can’t give details, too embarrassing), you might believe the opposite.

But here, now, my mother was telling me how to cook something, and if I didn’t get it right, not only would she tell me all I had done wrong, she also would not have the one thing, food, that she wanted in this sickly moment.

So I listened to her, and I followed everything she said, and though the recipe I’ll provide in just a minute says “beat slightly to mix,” when she instructed me to beat those eggs with the sugar and salt, my mother commanded that I beat the hell out of them, though she likely didn’t use the “H-word.” Not because she never said it, but because she was too weak then to yell it.

How can I describe my feeling when, after the custard was baked and I gave her a cup, she tasted it and said,

“Oh that’s so good!”

So I had a cup, too.

And you know, she was right. It was good.

I think she felt almost immediately better, too. Maybe not as good, or as relieved, as I felt, however.

Or as loved.

BAKED CUSTARD

3 large eggs

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 tsp salt

2 cups milk

1 tsp vanilla

nutmeg (optional)

Beat (slightly or rigorously) the eggs, sugar, and salt. Scald the milk and pour into egg mixture. Add vanilla, and strain mixture into custard cups/ramekins (likely six individual cups), and sprinkle nutmeg over top. Place cups in a large pan of hot water, so that water comes up at least one inch on sides of cups. Bake at 350 degrees until a silver knife [I swear she wrote down “silver knife!] comes out clean when stuck in the middle — approximately 30–35 minutes [that “stuck in the middle” part might tell you everything you need to know about the seriousness of my mother’s directions, and the consequences should you fail to heed them].

Don’t worry if you fail the first time. I won’t know. And believe me, I wouldn’t judge, or at least, not much.

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing…

Terry Barr

Written by

I write about music, lit culture, sports, food, and my Alabama past in One Table One World, MuddyUm, Indelible Ink, Literally Literate, and The Weekly Knob.

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

Terry Barr

Written by

I write about music, lit culture, sports, food, and my Alabama past in One Table One World, MuddyUm, Indelible Ink, Literally Literate, and The Weekly Knob.

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

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