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STOVETOP (STIRRED) CUSTARDS
Stirred custards have their ingredients heated to a certain temperature, or when a thin film adheres to a metal spoon dipped into the custard. When it's done, it is important to remove the stirred custard from the heat immediately to stop the cooking. Some recipes have you place the bottom of the pot in ice water to quicken the process.
Classic custard made on the stove top without starch is Crème Anglaise, but also includes zabaione that will be eaten as is or become a pie filling in a prebaked crust. They require the use of a double boiler and constant stirring.
1. Heat the cream or cream and milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until scalded (you'll see small bubbles on the sides of the pan). Split the vanilla bean in half, if using, and scrape the seeds into the cream;
2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, slowly whisk the sugar into the egg yolks and eggs;
3. Slowly temper the hot cream/milk into the sugar/yolk mixture;
4. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a pitcher or measuring cup to remove any tell-tale signs of small, cooked egg white lumps;
5. Stir in the salt and vanilla extract or flavorings after straining.
6. Refrigerate. Before refrigerating just cooked or baked custard, let it cool about 5 - 10 minutes and then cover it with plastic wrap. Make sure it touches the surface of the custard to prevent the milk proteins from forming a thin crust on top when refrigerated. Pierce a piece of plastic wrap large enough to cover the custard in about a dozen places with the tip of a sharp knife or a toothpick; place pierced plastic wrap directly onto surface and refrigerate to set.
When any custard is made on the stove top, it must be cooked slowly. Although some cooks like to cook the mixture in a double boiler, a heavy saucepan over low heat works as well if you are an experienced baker. Don’t try to hurry the process by turning up the heat.
Stir continuously with a wooden spoon. It’s fine to have a pan of cold water on hand to plunge the bottom of the pot into to stop cooking, but that only works if you catch it just on the brink of separating. You really have to keep a close eye on it while cooking.
For stirred custards without starch, once you've mixed together the hot milk and beaten eggs, it’s all too easy to overheat the mixture. To avoid this, cook the custard in a double boiler (with the bowl not touching the water), much like you would do to melt chocolate. This produces a gentler heat and reduces chances of splitting.
It is easy to think that to make your custard thicker that you should cook longer. Not true! Remember, it thickens on cooling, and English custard (as opposed to French, which is thick) should be pouring consistency, somewhere between single and double cream.
Unless you are making a meringue topping. In that case, heat the filling immediately before pouring it into the pie shell and topping with the meringue. Do not allow the filling to cool down before the meringue has been spread or the pie may weep because the cool filling prevents the meringue from sealing to the filling, causing problems.