Today is my sister’s birthday. Every year, I ask her what kind of cake I can make her and do you know what she says? “I don’t want a cake. I just want a big bowl of vanilla bean custard.” I hope you understand how hard this is for me (and please read that back in your brattiest little sister voice; it is, after all, all about me, right?) Making elaborate birthday cakes for family and friends is my thing. It has launched an entire section of this site, and portion of my cookbook (which includes my son’s 2nd, my husband’s 37th and 38th, and maybe even your next birthday cakes, too). I delight in trying to find a layered summary of everyone’s favorite things that fits in a cake carrier, and I think it’s awfully mean of my sister to deny me this outlet every August 30th. (Huff. Puff.) A bowl of custard? There’s not much to say about it.
Or, there might not be if your narrator wasn’t such a blabbermouth. To wit: Custard, or pastry cream, is a pretty big deal in my family. My mother and sister especially consider it among the dessert greats, whereas others mostly look at it as just an element of grander things. It’s the filling of cream puffs and eclairs; it forms a delightful layer underneath freshly sliced strawberries or an artful arrangement of stunning fruit. Sometimes, it separates cake layers, fills the hollows of doughnuts and Boston Cream Pies, too. But it rarely gets its own day in the sun — or you know, single serving bowl with a spoon — and my sister thinks that it should.
Custard, especially that which is flecked with the sweepings of a recently split vanilla bean, is really the ultimate vanilla pudding. And I know, I know that I had a rant not so long ago on this site about how it irks me when people call pudding what I actually call custard (I consider puddings to be mainly cornstarch-thicken simplicities, not to bore you to death with semantics) but were you to on occasion serve custard the way you would pudding, I don’t think you’d regret it at all.
So this year, at last, my sister gets her way. I made little bowls of vanilla bean custard and topped them with briefly roasted blueberries. I know, I know, the blueberries weren’t requested but they’re really wonderful right now and their tartness, which is amplified slightly by a lemon juice finish, plays off the dense richness of the chilled custards underneath perfectly. I just had to. I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I suspect she wouldn’t expect it any other way.
One year ago: Peach Butter
Two years ago: Peach Shortbread
Three years ago: Nectarine Galette
Four years ago: Cold Brewed Iced Coffee and Bourbon Peach Hand Pies
Five years ago: White Bean Roasted Red Pepper Dip
Vanilla Custards with Roasted Blueberries
This is my go-to custard recipe these days, adapted over the years (using less thickener and a range of butter amounts) from Julia Child. It can be used as the base for a fresh fruit tart in the yield listed below. It doesn’t make a terrible lot, just about 1ish cups of custard. I divided them into five tiny cups and we enjoyed our tiny desserts, but for a crowd or people with more than teacup tastes in dessert, definitely double it.
Vanilla beans can get expensive, I know, but one thing I don’t think enough recipes tell you is that you don’t need to use all or even half of a vanilla bean to get a clear vanilla flavor. I went ahead and used half a bean here, but I also think you can get great vanilla flavor from even a quarter bean. Heck, I’ve even used 1-inch segments of a bean before in a small yield of a dessert. Use what you’re comfortable with. And if you don’t have a fresh bean, just extract, stir in a teaspoon at the end (I’ll tell you when).
About the butter: Julia Child would suggest that you use 1 tablespoon of butter for this yield of pastry cream. Dorie Greenspan would suggest 3 tablespoons; I’ve seen recipes that suggest up to 4 tablespoons and some that suggest none (gasp!). I’d suggest using 1 to 2 tablespoons, and only adding more if you want your pastry cream really, really luxe. But who would want a thing like that?
Serves 4, petitely
1 cup whole milk
Seeds from 1/4 to 1/2 vanilla bean (see Note) or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 to 2 tablespoons (see Note) unsalted butter
1 cup blueberries
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Juice from a wedge lemon, or to taste
In a small saucepan, combine your milk and vanilla bean flecks (if using extract instead, don’t add it yet). Heat the mixture until it is warm, then set aside. You can also do this in a microwave. If your saucepan or microwave dish has a small spout, even better.
In the bottom of a small saucepan, off the heat, beat or whisk your egg yolks and 1/4 cup sugar together vigorously, until it pales in color and a ribbon of batter falls off your whisk when you lift it from the bowl; this will take a few minutes by hand, and likely just one minute with an electric mixer. Whisk in the flour until fully incorporated.
Whisking the whole time, drizzle the warm vanilla-milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, just a tiny bit at a time at first. Once you’ve added about 1/4 of the milk, you can add the rest in a thin stream, whisking constantly.
Bring the saucepan to your stove and heat it over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until it begins to bubble. Once bubbling, whisk it for 1 to 2 more minutes, then remove it from the heat. Immediately stir in vanilla extract (if using) and butter until combined. [Updated to add] As a final step for a perfectly smooth and silky custard, you can press the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. You can also skip this step if you’re not terribly concerned about an imperfect custard.
To cool your custard quickly, place the saucepan in a larger bowl of ice water that will go halfway up the sides of the saucepan (i.e. water should not spill in) and stir the custard until lukewarm, then divide among serving dishes or ramekins. You can also pour it into serving dishes or ramekins still hot, but you should then press a film of plastic wrap against each custard in the fridge so it doesn’t form a pudding skin. Custards keep in fridge for up to 4 days.
To serve: Preheat oven to 450°F. Place blueberries in a heatproof, shallow roasting dish and sprinkle with 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar. Roast in oven for 12 to 15 minutes, rolling around once or twice during cooking time to ensure they roast evenly. The goal is not to let the blueberries fully slump or turn to sauce; you just want a little trickle of juices puddled across in the bottom. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over berries the second they come out of the oven and roll them back and forth to evenly incorporate it. Spoon hot roasted blueberries and some of their juices over each custard. Eat immediately, passing any extra roasted blueberries alongside.