For a Christmas Eve treat, Michelle’s paternal grandmother always made a Southern tradition, boiled custard. After that, things get a bit hazy.
Boiled custard itself can be confusing, especially to someone like Steve who has sketchy (and Yankee) Christmas traditions. While both eggnog and boiled custard arise from the mists of Anglo-Saxon odd drink traditions (along with wassail, posset and caudle), the former is often made with raw eggs, while the “boiled” custard popular in the Southern U.S. cooks eggs along with milk and sugar. In an odd (to Steve, at least) tether to the worst clichés of English cuisine, boiled custard also omits any spice such as nutmeg, which is another way to tell it apart from eggnog—especially if you’re buying the processed store version. Bland, confusing or not, in Michelle’s family if it’s Christmas somebody is supposed to be drinking boiled custard.
Most of the stories Steve has heard from Michelle about her “Nanny” who passed away back in the Seventies involve food, centering on a sweet woman dishing up mounds of fried chicken, biscuits, vegetables and desserts to family and neighbors. Nanny, according to Michelle, was always cooking—which is perhaps why there are so few family pictures of her. She seems to be always in the background, serving squads of Turners who now can’t seem to agree on what she actually laid out at the annual family gathering on Christmas Eve. (There is supposedly a Hopkinsville, Kentucky newspaper article detailing the deliciousness of Nanny’s holiday spreads, but we await confirmation on its particulars.) Various family members say Nanny served country ham, sweet potato pudding, pimento cheese, ambrosia and scalloped oysters. Others recall nothing but piles of sweets including potato/peanut butter candies, pineapple cake, coconut cake, yellow cake with chocolate icing, raisin pie and bourbon balls. Perhaps the sheer number of family members (Michelle had three uncles, three aunts and nearly a score of first cousins) is a reason for the disparate memories, as late-comers may have missed out on certain delicacies while early birds remained mum. There is no disagreement on the boiled custard, at least.
Nanny’s boiled custard supposedly used flour as a thickener, and the first recipe Michelle tried this year (from Atkins Dairy in Hopkinsville) similarly used cornstarch. The result was a giant pitcher of thick, sugary goo that was too sweet even for Michelle, and it’s almost redundant to say Steve found it revolting. Abandoning any attempt to emulate Nanny, Michelle then turned to Camille Glenn, who advocated separating the eggs and incorporating the beaten whites after the custard cooled. This custard was lighter and much less sweet—quite acceptable, especially after Steve added a little shot of bourbon, raising a toast to Nanny and her descendants.
Rest assured that the Hopkinsville dairy horror did not go to waste, as Gourmandistan has many ideas about what to do with crème Anglaise. Steve thought the thick mess would be perfect with tart, fresh berries, but Christmas is no time for that. So we pulled out our ice cream freezer and dumped the custard inside, Michelle making a dark chocolate sauce while it cranked. A while later we had a quite scrumptious frozen custard dessert. While it may not become a new Turner holiday tradition, at least it’s more solid than most memories of Nanny’s Christmas Eve food.
BOILED CUSTARD (or, as Glenn called it, “Soft English Custard”)
(adapted from Camille Glenn’s The Fine Art of Delectable Desserts) (serves 6 to 8)
- 4 c. whole milk
- 6 egg yolks
- 1/2 c. sugar
- Pinch salt
- 1/2 TB vanilla extract
- 3 egg whites
Scald milk, making sure not to let it boil.
Beat egg yolks, sugar and salt until light and creamy. Add the warmed milk, a little at a time and stir to combine well.
Cook the custard in a double boiler or a heavy pot over low to medium-low heat. Stir constantly until custard is slightly thickened and will coat the back of a wooden spoon.
Remove from heat and pour into a cool bowl or plastic container. Add vanilla. Refrigerate immediately. Occasionally stir gently while it cools to prevent a scum from forming.
When custard is cold, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into custard.
Custard will keep for several days, refrigerated in a closed container.
Serve in a small glass, plain or with a bit of bourbon, rum or brandy.