I have learned a lot about egg custards since yesterday morning. It’s been rainy in PA, so I’ve been in the kitchen rather than out in the field. My pal Leda makes a gorgeous pineapple weed flan, but I opted for custard because: 1) flan scares me (I have since confronted that fear, but that’s another post); 2) I wanted to use pineapple weed syrup as a topping, instead of caramel sauce; and 3) I had milk in the house but no cream. This silky smooth, pineapple weed custard makes a perfect summer dessert:
What’s the difference between a custard and a flan? Thanks to Harold McGee, I can explain that. Flan (also called creme caramel) contains more eggs/egg yolks) than a custard, which gives flan a stronger structure, and makes it easier to un-mold from the dish it was baked in. The bottoms of flan dishes are coated with a layer of caramelized sugar before the egg/cream mixture is poured on top and baked. Flans are usually tipped out of their molds before serving. Custards are usually served in their baking dishes, because the lower egg to dairy ratio makes them less sturdy and more difficult to un-mold.
Flans and custards are both combinations of dairy, eggs, sugar, and salt. The family of custards also includes panna cottas and blancmanges, and all of them are great choices for summer desserts, when their cool, smooth texture is especially refreshing. If you’re a forager, you can infuse your dairy with your favorite unbuyable flavor: elderflowers, milkweed flowers, melilot, or pineapple weed. This recipe makes about three servings, and can be doubled.
What You’ll Need to Make Pineapple Weed Custard
1 cup whole milk
1 cup cleaned pineapple weed flowers and leaves
1 extra large egg
2 Tablespoons sugar
a pinch of salt
What You’ll Do to Make Pineapple Weed Custard
Preheat your oven to 325F.
Combine the milk and pineapple weed in a saucepan and gradually bring the milk to a simmer, whisking to prevent scorching. Allow the milk to barely simmer for five minutes (whisking all the time), then remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the pineapple weed steep for 30 minutes.
Strain off the solids, pressing down on them to release every possible drop of liquid. Throw away the pineapple weed, then pour the infused milk through a fine strainer (like a yogurt strainer or gold coffee filter) to remove any solids that may have snuck through the first strainer.
Whisk the egg, then combine it with the infused milk, sugar, and salt. Older recipes suggest heating the milk with the sugar and salt, then tempering the eggs before pouring the custard mix into individual dishes. Harold says this is a holdover from days when the quality of dairy products was uncertain, and that it’s no longer necessary. I combined my ingredients cold, and the texture and set of my pineapple weed custard was excellent.
Here’s a tip I wish I’d read before I started: when combining your ingredients, be thorough but gentle. A heavy hand creates air bubbles in the mixture, and when the air bubbles bake, the result is a rough, cratered surface on the top of your custard. It still tastes great, but it isn’t pretty.
Pour your custard into individual dishes, then place those dishes in a large baking pan and fill the pan with hot water until it reaches halfway up the custard dishes. (This is called a bain marie.) The water moderates the heat of the oven, and both custards and flans have more delicate textures when they bake gently.
Bake your custards for 40 – 50 minutes, depending on the size of your dishes. (I started checking at 30 minutes.) The custards should be jiggly, but a knife inserted in the center should come out clean.
Remove the dishes from the hot water bath, and let them cool on the counter for about an hour. Then cover the dishes and refrigerate until you’re ready to serve. Top your custard with a few tablespoons of pineapple weed simple syrup, for an extra blast of unbuyable, foraged flavor.