General Custards

April 29, 2009

This week marks the beginning of an entire three week course devoted to custards. This is to say that I will be spending 5 hours a day, 5 days a week for three weeks, cracking eggs, mixing them with milk, and baking them. That is 75 hours prepping clafoutis, creme brulee, cheesecake, and the like. This may sound as if I am simplifying the matter, but in truth, I’m not. Pretty much all custards are that simple. Its amazing.

So simple, and yet, so snobby. Eggs and milk and sugar dressed up in a smooth exterior – really, they are just a few of the workhorses of the kitchen, this time on center-stage instead of doing real work in our cakes, breads, cookies and such. Its not that they don’t deserve such attention (though we have proved that one can bake without them) its more that, without a good dab of chocolate, they aren’t worth all that much to this little baker. Maybe the tides will turn on my custard opinion. But maybe not.

Anyway, this week started similarly to other weeks, with a Monday morning ride into Portland on The Max train, silmoutaneously boycotting e-spam with a book, and participating by sending early morning emails on my iPhone, organizing my day and the files that occasionally comprise it (aka: dinner recipes, to-do lists etc.) This Monday was a bit more of the former. I have been devouring the first chapters “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver, expecting my hunger for her localvore outlook to inspire me to plow right through the text. Kingsolver moved her entire family to a small farm in Virginia, making a group pact to eat only what they could grow themselves (or purchase from the farmers down the street) for one year. A very interesting experiment indeed.

Since about the time I moved to Italy in 2004, I have been fascinated with local food movements, having been privledged enough to “grow up” a localvore in the heart and origin of the SlowFood movement. I swore off indoor food markets, bought a seasonal cookbook in Italian, and was hooked. Then came our movement to Japan where so so many of the vegetables sold at our comissary were shipped from across the ocean, using and exhaustive amount of fuel to transport them, and resulting in over or under-ripe products with huge carbon footprints. (Transporting a single calorie of perishable fruit from California to New York takes about 87 calories worth of fuel. Imagine the consumption from California to Japan. You would have to eat an entire cantaloupe to get 87 calories. If you were lucky!) I quickly sought out the outdoor markets again, bucking up to teach myself to cook with vegetables I could not pronounce and had never dreamed in my wildest. Deprived of peaches, berries, and the Whole Foods salad bar for years, our return to the U.S. was the second coming of produce in our house. Organics! Locals! And sometimes anything but seasonals……I would be damned to believe that mangos are growing in the United States for that cake I wanted to bake at Christmasstime.

We, as Americans, don’t think much about where our food comes from, often times even forgetting that EVERYTHING we eat first was grown on a farm. And, that being said, it required the miracles of mother nature to inspire it. Strawberries don’t pop of the plant on command – they do so when the spring sun has ripened them just enough to turn them red. Then, their time is past, making way for cherries, and then the berries of summer. I know quite a few people that require berries year round, not thinking of what continent those berries must have grown on – its always summer SOMEWHERE.

In Oregon, and throught most of the United States, April means leafy greens, mushrooms, strawberries and asparagus – these latter two with a relatively small window within which to enjoy them. So, Mother Nature insists that we should eat the hell out of these little gems while they are available.

And this is what Mrs. Kingsolver shared with my on Monday on The Max. That I should really ditch my plans for a mexican feast for dinner and make use of the delicious harvest available to me. To embrace the day, and to enjoy opportunity. AND, to give custards a hug.

So, at last, the multigrain bread I baked on Monday has gone stale enough that I can use it for bread pudding. And, with the opening of the South Blocks Farmer’s Market (just two blocks in my kicks from school) in Portland today, I have plenty of asparagus and wild mushrooms hand selected to fill a savory bread pudding for D and N to enjoy for dinner. Bread pudding is a custard. It is baked deliciousness held together by coagulated eggs. A custard I like that does NOT include chocolate. A revolutionary thought!

Rather than creating a formula for life and hunting/gathering for items to fill it, why don’t we as Americans take a look at what we have and build upon it? Like making custard – with perfectly wonderful asparagus in the beautiful spring.

Here is the recipe that I used to make our Asparagus Bread Pudding. Find this and more inspiration at


Thanks to Deborah Madison, Local Flavors

3 cups milk
1 cup chopped spring onions with green shoots
Add onions to milk in sauce pan and bring to a boil, set aside to steep

1 loaf stale or toasted multigrain bread broken into crouton sized crumbs
Pour milk over crumbs and allow bread to soak

1 lb. asparagus
Chop into ½ inch pieces and simmer in skillet full of boiling water until bright

2 tbs. butter
1 lb. morels (or other wild mushrooms)
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in skillet, cook mushrooms until tender, add spices and set aside

4 eggs
1/3 cup chopped parsley
3 tbs. oregano
3 cups grated Swiss cheese
Break eggs and beat until smooth, add herbs and plenty of salt and pepper, add
bread crumbs with remaining milk, asparagus and mushrooms with their juices
and 2/3 of the cheese. Mix thoroughly and pour into a greased, 8×12 gratin,
sprinkle remaining cheese on top and bake at 350 for about 45 minutes (until
puffy and golden).

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