Food & Drink: Don't be a cowardy custard: Forget the stuff served at school dinners: go for the real thing, with the luxury of cream and eggs

Real custard may be no more than egg, sugar and milk (or, better still, cream), but there is nothing simple about it. To get exactly the sort you want involves complicated and subtle variations. When I have time to devise it, my patented Grigson Custard Calculator will make me a million. Until then I shall continue to rely on a few tried-and-tested formulas.

With the eggs, the issue is whether to use the whole egg or only the yolk. Yolks give a richer tasting, velvety custard, and a deeper yellow colour which is more appetising. If you add whites there is more of a jellyish consistency. Whites make a sturdier custard and are useful if you wish to unmould a baked custard. The thickening power of white and yolk are roughly equivalent, so you can substitute yolks for whites for a more luxurious and tender custard.

The second main ingredient is milk, or cream. Milk makes a light custard but it is really not worth using anything other than full-cream milk. Skimmed-milk custard is too insubstantial. The more cream you add, the thicker and richer the custard. With a pouring custard, you could even use pure single cream. Neat double cream is too heavy for a sauce, but ideal for a baked custard served in its dish. Since it is so rich and thick, it needs few yolks to set it.

MEDIUM-THICK VANILLA CUSTARD

This is a straightforward pouring custard. For a runnier custard (what the French call creme anglaise), use one fewer egg yolk. Vanilla is the classic flavour, but orange zest, a bay leaf, cinnamon stick or cardamom pods are a few possible alternatives or additions.

If the custard overheats and begins to show signs of graininess, take off the heat instantly, pour quickly into a processor, add cold milk or cream and whizz hard. With any luck, it will hold together well enough to serve without embarrassment. You can make a never-fail, stable custard by adding a little cornflour, but the texture loses out.

Makes about 1/2 pint (290ml)

Ingredients: either 1/2 pint (290ml) full-cream milk or 1/4 pint (150ml) single cream and 1/4 pint (150ml) milk

1 vanilla pod, slit open

1 whole egg

2 egg yolks

1-2oz (30-55g) castor sugar

Preparation: Put milk and cream (if using) into a pan with the vanilla pod. Bring gently to the boil, reduce heat to as low as possible, and pull the pan half off. Cover and leave to infuse for 20-30 minutes.

Whisk the egg and yolks with the sugar. Pour the hot milk (still with the vanilla pod in it) slowly on to the mixture, whisking constantly. Rinse out the milk pan and return the mixture to it. Stir over a low heat, scraping into the corners of the pan every now and then, until the custard has thickened and coats the back of a spoon evenly. Do not let it boil. Whisk quickly with a wire whisk to even out the texture, then strain (to remove not only the vanilla pod, but also any strings of white that have formed) into a cool bowl. Serve hot or cold (remember that it will thicken a little more as it cools).

ROSEMARY OR VANILLA ICE-CREAM

I tasted rosemary ice-cream for the first time a month or so ago at the Sir Charles Napier restaurant, near Chinnor in Oxfordshire. The ice-cream was delicious, and I have since made it myself, substituting a sprig of rosemary for the vanilla pod in a standard, custard-based vanilla ice-cream recipe.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 1/2 pint (290ml) full-cream milk

1 sprig of rosemary or 1 vanilla pod, split open

3 large egg yolks

4oz (110g) castor sugar

1/2 pint (290ml) double cream

Preparation: Make a custard (using the method given in the previous recipe) with the milk, rosemary or vanilla, egg yolks and sugar, cooking until it just coats the back of a spoon thinly. Take off the heat, tip into a cold bowl and leave until cool, then strain. Whip the cream lightly and fold into the custard, then freeze in a sorbetiere, if you have one. Otherwise, turn the freezer to its coldest setting, tip the ice-cream mixture into a shallow container and start it freezing. When the edges are solid, break them up into little bits and push into the centre of the container. Return to the freezer. Repeat once. When the cream is almost set right through, scoop into a processor and whizz fast until creamy. If you do not have a processor, beat hard with a spoon to break up granules of ice. Finally, pop it back in the freezer to finish freezing.

A RASPBERRY TRIFLE

When you want a pan-cooked custard to set, you do have to help it along with a little cornflour. The straight single cream and the whipped cream on top more than make up for the change in texture.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 8 sponge-finger biscuits

6tbs best sweet sherry or sweet muscat wine

3tbs brandy

For the custard: 1/2 pint (290ml) single cream

2 egg yolks

2 eggs

2tsp cornflour

1 1/2 oz (45g) castor sugar

To finish: raspberry jam

1/2 pint (290ml) double cream, whipped

one small punnet of raspberries

toasted flaked almonds

Preparation: Pack the sponge-finger biscuits in a tight layer in the base of a deep glass dish of about 7in (17.5cm) diameter, breaking them up to fit. Pour over both the alcohols and leave to soak.

Bring the single cream gently to the boil. As it heats, beat the egg yolks, eggs, cornflour and sugar. Pour on the hot cream, stirring continuously. Return to the pan and stir over a low heat until thick. Pour over the soaked biscuits, leave to cool and chill until set. Spread raspberry jam over the surface. Spread the whipped double cream lightly over the jam. Cover and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight. Just before serving, decorate with almonds and raspberries.

BAKED APRICOT CUSTARDS

The richness of this baked custard is set off neatly by the hidden layer of apricots.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 3oz (85g) sugar

3fl oz (85ml) sweet muscat wine

2 strips lemon zest

4 large apricots or 6 small ones, pitted and sliced

3 egg yolks

3/4 pint (440ml) double cream

Preparation: Warm sugar, wine, lemon zest and 3fl oz (85ml) water in a pan over a medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and add the apricot slices. Reduce heat and poach until fruit is tender and translucent. Lift out the apricots with a slotted spoon and boil down their syrup until reduced to about 4tbs. Let the syrup cool and divide the apricots between six ramekin dishes.

Whisk the egg yolks lightly with the syrup. Bring the double cream to the boil, take off the heat and pour into the yolks, whisking constantly. Strain the mixture over the apricots and bake in a bain-marie (a roasting tin with enough cold water to come about halfway up the sides of the dish), at 150C/300F/gas 2 for 40-50 minutes until just set. Serve warm or cool or chilled.

SIMON HOPKINSON'S CREMA CATALANA

This unusual recipe appears in Simon Hopkinson's elegant and approachable Roast Chicken and Other Stories. I was surprised to find only three egg yolks used to set more than a pint of liquid, but it works. Fennel seeds add an almost medicinal flavour, which balances the richness of the cream.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 18fl oz (500ml) double cream

1/4 pint (150ml) milk

1tbs crushed fennel seeds

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

grated zest 1 lemon

grated zest of 1 small orange

3 egg yolks

3 1/2 oz (90g) sugar

Preparation: Pre-heat the oven to 275F/ 140C/gas 1. Heat the cream with the milk, fennel seeds, vanilla pod, lemon and orange zests. Whisk as it comes to the boil, take off the heat, cover and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick. Strain the milk and cream into this mixture. Whisk thoroughly and leave to stand for 10 minutes or so as a froth will have formed. Skim it off. Pour into six ramekin dishes, place in a bain-marie (see recipe above) and cook in the oven for about 1 hour or until just set but still slightly wobbly in the middle. Chill for at least 8 hours, or overnight, before serving.

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