This recipe is old. It existed before many other things in my life came to be.
It existed before my parents divorce. Before I learned that a breakup can make your heart physically hurt. Before I knew that I had inherited my father’s heartburn and my mother’s propensity for drinking red wine. Before I would come to love a man who could shave with a straight razor and who took to drinking bourbon and to making me roast pork and beef stew with homemade noodles on his days off.
I don’t know precisely what happened last week that caused me to think of this dish (other than some lingering milk that was threatening to go sour if I so much as looked at it wrong). I hadn’t thought about it since roughly age ten. After taking a twenty-year sabbatical in the cobwebs of my mind, the custard snapped right back, though.
It was a dessert that my mother used to make back when my biggest problems were tight-fitting ice skates and boys with Irish-sounding names, like Patrick and Sean. But there it was, this custard, coming back to me at age thirty, practically begging to put my milk to good use.
It is quite the custard. Its soft, lightly sweet eggy interior gently supports a spiced, freckled skin. And if we were to judge solely on looks—which mothers scold against doing and society does on a very regular basis—you can see it’s very pretty. It’s also very delicate; the kind of dessert that you might want to eat from a teacup. Though it’s equally as good eaten with a spoon, with the refrigerator door wide open.
It’s also one of the simplest things to make. A phone call to mom and a pie dish filled with eggs, milk, sugar, and spice was all it took. It’s so simple, in fact, that I was able to recall the entire recipe from memory for a coworker last week.
So I’d like to think of this dessert as a form of motherly advice. A reminder to keep it simple. A strategy for saving things, like leftover milk. A model of modest sugar usage. And a means to connect the past with the present, by way of custard.
Mom’s Baked Custard
2½ cups whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
¼ scant tsp cinnamon
dusting of freshly grated nutmeg
Set your oven at 350 degrees.
Gently heat the milk in a medium saucepan on medium-low heat until it reaches 100-110 degrees give or take (this is before bubbles will form around the edge of your pan). Mix the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt together in a glass 9-inch pie pan (or another oven-safe dish that will hold your contents).
Slowly, whisk in the warm milk (be careful that you don’t whisk in milk that is too hot too quickly). Rinse out your saucepan and fill it with water (to boil for the custard’s hot water bath); heat the water on high heat.
Gently sprinkle the cinnamon over the top of the milk liquid and then grate a little nutmeg on top, as well (no need to get precise with this, you know your fondness for nutmeg better than I do).
Place the pie pan in the middle of a sheet tray, or cookie sheet with sides, and—when your water is boiling—pour enough water into the tray to go up about 1 inch around the sides of your pan. VERY GENTLY place the pan in the oven.
Cook until the custard sets, about 45 minutes or so. You’ll know it’s done when it doesn’t jiggle all over the place and a knife inserted into the center of the custard comes out clean.
Makes about 6 servings
-My mother extremely dislikes nutmeg, so she started substituting cinnamon instead. I like them both. So there you have it. (She also tended to use skim milk; employ whatever milk you have around, it's good regardless.)
-Be very careful not to burn yourself if you are using a pie pan for this (mom uses a 1 quart casserole dish). Oven mitts, people.
-This is equally as good for breakfast as it is for dessert.