Consider custard. The daytime TV presenter Vanessa Feltz might be its greatest advocate. Who can forget the 2005 headline in an edition of Woman’s Own magazine? “Friends fear she’s drinking custard again”, it read.
I’ve long wondered where the “fear” is in any of this. Indeed, Feltz herself followed up by posing with a pot of custard and drinking it because custard is as good a drink as any.
I’d like to talk about my custard journey, from simple beginnings to the extravagance of today’s appreciation. As a child, we’d have Bird’s powdered custard from time to time. This is not because I grew up during the war but because it was economical and delicious. I’d have it regularly, usually with banana, sometimes with multi-coloured sprinkles, and every now and then I’d take a spoon to the dry powder and have some of that. Odd? Certainly. Enjoyable? Actually not all that much. I did it anyway.
Then came the Ambrosia years. These arrived to much fanfare, either by can or Tetra Pak. It was stored in the fridge and was therefore ready immediately for me – I prefer custard cold – and this is when the drinking kicked off. After a game of football and a Sainsbury’s Basics 99p pizza, I’d nail a whole can right off the bat. Or an entire carton.
Ambrosia is hardly fashionable today. It could be the viscosity – it’s a little thick. See: gloopy. You know it is absolutely not a crème anglaise. Its undoing – I’m sure it is still bought by some – might well be the arrival of the posh tubs. After my mum married a financier, these burst into our family fridge with aplomb. Waitrose No 1 custard in this format is excellent, though for me, the best is Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Madagascan vanilla. Breathtaking. And, interestingly enough, so indulgent that to drink all 500ml in one sitting would be counterproductive, too much.
Today I am spoiled when it comes to custard. I spoon it up regularly, and drink it, still. At Forza Win, an Italian restaurant in Camberwell, or at Forza Wine, its sister brand with sites in both Peckham and at the National Theatre on the South Bank in London, there is a dessert called the Custardo. Fine espresso is blended with smooth custard and it makes for a sweet hit and a pick-me-up. I recommend it after fritto misto and a bowl of pasta.
I also suggest the Scottish chef Stuart Ralston’s savoury Bagon Bigod custard. Here is a Suffolk cheese made in the same style as French brie, with milk from a herd of imported Montbelliarde cows. Baron Bigod is a powerhouse today and one of the UK’s most famous wheels. I remember when it was new on the scene and a novelty in restaurants.
Ralston has three restaurants in the Scottish capital. Noto and Tipo are Italian, while Aizle is a celebration of Scottish produce, with notes from across Europe. Baron Bigod is one. Many think it’s better than brie.
Baron Bigod custard with granola and lavosh crackers
For the Baron Bigod custard (makes 500g)
150g double cream
15g Baron Bigod, chopped
6 egg yolks
12 x 20cm ovenproof container
For the granola (Makes about 300g):
30g vegetable oil
60g maple syrup
200g rolled oats
10g sunflower seeds
For the lavosh crackers:
4g fresh yeast (or 2g dried active yeast)
50g malt extract
25g sourdough starter (if you don’t have a sourdough starter, adding the same quantity of flour is an alternative)
40g strong white flour
175g wholemeal flour
50g vegetable oil
150g sunflower seeds
A good slice of membrillo (quince paste)
Wood sorrel (optional)
Start by making the Baron Bigod custard. In a pot, bring the cream and milk to a boil. Add the cheese and, over a low heat, allow it to melt in.
Pass the mixture through a fine chinois. Once it has cooled a little, slowly beat in the eggs with a whisk. Pour into a 12 x 20cm container.
Steam at 85°C for 40 minutes until there is no wobble in the custard. We have a steamer at the restaurant but you can also bake in a bain marie at 140°C for 40 minutes, covering it with a little clingfilm on top to make sure it steams.
Once the custard has set, leave aside to cool. If it feels a little stiff, break it up by beating with a spatula so it emulsifies, then cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge.
For the granola, heat oven to 130°C. Mix the oil, maple syrup and honey together in a large bowl. Tip in the rolled oats and sunflower seeds and mix well.
Tip the granola on to two baking sheets and spread it into an even layer. Bake for 15 minutes.
Scrape the cooked granola on to a flat tray to cool. It can be stored in an airtight container for up to a month.
For the crackers, in a stand mixer with a dough hook, combine the yeast, milk, malt extract, sourdough starter or extra flour, white flour and 100g of the wholemeal flour until it forms a loose dough. Cover and prove for an hour.
Add the remaining 75g of wholemeal flour and the salt and mix until it comes together in a very soft, sticky dough. Tip on to a heavily floured worktop and cut into four evenly sized pieces.
Roll the dough through a pasta machine to the thinnest setting possible, flouring it as much as you need to stop it sticking. Place on a greaseproof-lined tray and brush with oil. Season with more salt and sunflower seeds.
Bake at 170°C for 12 minutes and leave to cool, then break into pieces about the size of a credit card.
With a spoon, scoop the Baron Bigod custard into a quenelle and carefully place on the plate. Gently cover with about 30g of the granola, then top with small cubes of membrillo and 8 to 10 leaves of wood sorrel, if available. Serve with crackers.