Sunday, February 21, 2010

mocha custard

Joey caught a bit of the women's olympic skeleton course the other day. I've never even heard of the sport before now, but apparently what he saw were women flying face first on tiny metal sleds down a death defying track. With each new athlete, the announcer revealed that yet another mother was hopping on the sled. Speeding down the ice face first with a force of 5g? Sounds like a good time to me, and sounds a bit like this past week.
I don't aspire to be cryptic, but you understand that sometimes I have to keep a few details to myself, right? This week is one of those moments. But I'll tell you one thing, I have made a whole lot of cake this week, cake that requires so many thick and protective egg whites to be torn from their nurturing yolks. I have been thankful to have so many bright yolks looking for a home. When I take a break from my skeleton course, I better have something damn comforting to eat, and twice now, in the midst of this week, I have made mocha custard.

Mocha Custard. The pinnacle of all things comforting for me. You know I'm a pudding person, and a jello person, and a panna cotta person. That's no mystery by now. If it can slide from a spoon down my throat, I am a happy girl. In my experience, comfort food is such because of memory, and mocha custard might just have been the seed of my love of pudding.

There is a restaurant in Northampton, MA called Paul and Elizabeth's. It is large and cavernous, and filled with shiny old wood and large rectangles of sunlight. It has been there forever, and the fish lunch might just be the most reliable $7.95 that you can spend in Western MA. They always have the same desserts, at least they have for the 30-ish years I've been sitting at their tables. Pear crunch, Indian Pudding, some sort of cream pie, maybe a fruit pie, and mocha custard.

The mocha custard comes in a white cereal bowl. It has been baked right in there, and the dimply surface skin is topped with a little bit of maple sweetened whipped cream. It is not very sweet. It is egg-y. It has the perfect consistency, and it is not rich at all, so there is no issue with eating the whole bowl.

When I was very little, after my parents split, we lived near Boston in the very eastern part of Massachusetts. My grandparents lived out here where I am now, in the Berkshires, which is as far west as one can be in the state. On many weekends, my mother would drive me out to Northampton, which is something like half way between the two, and we would meet my grandparents at Paul and Elizabeth's. They would take us out to lunch, and then they would scoop me into their car, and take me home with them. My mother would set back off to Eastern MA to live her life for a few days, and I would come to my grandparent's bed and breakfast to help my grandmother make whole grain coffee cake and empty the little garbage cans in each guest room.

I was a picky kid, and I ate the same thing every time at these lunches. Fish Chowder, one of Paul and Elizabeth's brown puffball mushroom-like rolls, and mocha custard. There have been long stretches of time between my bowls of mocha custard, but never more than a week between the times that I dreamed about it, and let my imagination create the velvet texture in my mouth.

In all these years, I have never asked them for the recipe. I am shyer than I should be about these things. Joey's been nudging me lately to talk to chefs and ask them questions, and I am always happy for that. But I know a few things about the mocha custard at Paul and Elizabeth's. I know that they make it with grain coffee and maple syrup, milk and eggs. Last week, feeling the ever growing heft of the tupperware containing abandoned egg yolks, I knew it was time. My friend Hedley was in my kitchen, and she agreed to whisk those yolks with love and support while I poured in the hot milk. I added espresso instead of grain coffee, maple syrup, a touch of cocoa powder, and that was that. It must of been a lucky day, because with 30 minutes later, I had real mocha custard in my kitchen.

I think that when it comes to good, simple food, there are no secrets. I love this more than I can express. If I focus on food in my memory, I can taste it, and if I can taste it, I can recreate it. How great is that! I don't think that this is a special talent that I have. I'm pretty sure that most taste buds are up for the challenge.

So here we are, with my very own homemade mocha custard. Here's to things tasting even better now than they ever did before.

Mocha Custard

7 egg yolks
4 cups whole milk
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 1/2 tablespoons instant espresso

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter 6 one-cup ramekins or other oven proof cups.
In a medium saucepan, bring the milk just barely to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks together in a large heatproof bowl until slightly frothy. When the milk is hot, you want to pour it in a very small, slow and steady stream into the egg yolks while continuing to whisk. If you have a friend to whisk while you pour, this is helpful, but if not, transfer the milk to a large measuring cup so that you can pour with one hand while whisking with the other. The key is to pour slowly enough so that you don't scramble your eggs. When the milk and eggs are entirely combined, continue to whisk for another minute, until you have a very smooth and frothy mixture. If you have scrambled your eggs a bit, all is not lost, just pour the mixture through a strainer at this point. Whisk in the maple syrup, espresso, and chocolate. Pour the mixture into the prepared ramekins. Place the ramekins into a large baking dish and pour hot water into the large dish about half way up the side of the ramekins. (For an image of a water bath, go here). Put the baking dish in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the center of the custard is set. Eat warm (for breakfast!) or chill in the fridge, where the custards will continue to firm up.


  1. alana..i am allergic to coffee, would you suggest i just drop it or add something to replace it??

  2. Nancy, you can really do anything with this base. A few ideas- drop the coffee and up the cocoa to 3 Tablespoons for a mellow chocolate custard, or up the maple syrup to 1/2 cup for a maple custard. Paul and Elizabeth's actually makes this with natural grain coffee, so you can use something like cafix or roma for a coffee flavor and it will be more authentic! I'm not sure of the proportions though- but I'd start with 2 tablespoons and see how it goes.