In the foodie lexicon, the term ‘nursery food’ is much used to describe relatively unsophisticated dishes that were served to children and have now become adult favourites. In the British context, nursery food has taken on a certain class connotation and is often used for the kind of food served at expensive prep schools. Thus, the food at gentlemen’s clubs, at the House of Lords etc is always dismissed by foodies as nursery food.
Because I am outside of the British class system with its attendant baggage, I have no trouble at all in admitting that I love nursery food. A good trifle is a thing of beauty. A great bread-and-butter pudding is worth giving your life for. There’s a lot to be said for a plump but firm crème caramel. And so on.
My mother says that it is not just nursery food that I love. She traces my preferences to the stuff I was served as an infant. Everything that was mashed and fed to me as baby food has now come back as grown-up cuisine. Perhaps something about those flavours and textures comforts me at a subliminal level.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in my lack of patience with grown-up haute cuisine desserts. French chefs may labour for days over elaborate creations where perfectly baked thin sheets of pastry encase a delicate almond cream and are then topped with a compote of wild berries – but frankly, I couldn’t give a damn. Serve me this sort of rubbish and I will ask for a scoop of vanilla ice cream instead.
Oddly enough, I believe that many Indians of my background (i.e. born into the professional middle classes) have the same love of nursery/baby food desserts. My friend Smita Prakash of the ANI news agency has travelled with me to many exotic countries as part of the PM’s media party but her specialty remains a simple jelly trifle. My colleague Vasantha Angamuthu is an expert on unfermented artisanal Japanese soya sauces but her signature dessert is also a jelly trifle. And she shares my passion for custard.
Ah, custard! It is one of Western cuisine’s greatest inventions and fortunately not one that the French can lay claim to. They don’t even have a term for custard and the nearest they get to it is Crème Anglaise, a sauce version of the original.
The problem, of course, is that we in India don’t really understand or know custard. Oh yes, we think we do. We’ve been eating it for years, I hear you say, and it’s not very nice. It is on every school menu. A little puddle of custard surrounds every basic dessert on a buffet. And any fool can make it. All you need is a packet of custard powder.
Well, yes. But mostly: no. When we eat what we think is custard, we’re actually eating a forgery.
The term custard does not derive from the sauce. It derives from crustade, the term given to a tart with a crust in medieval times. Such tarts were often filled with a mixture of milk and eggs thickened by gentle heating. This style of pie-making survives. Think of a Quiche Lorraine which is essentially a flan made from a savoury custard.
Eventually, the technique of making a custard with milk and eggs became a dessert staple and in the early part of the 20th century, Hollywood made custard pies famous by getting comedians to splatter them on each other’s faces. The English also took to custard as a sauce, using it in nearly every dessert. (The original English custard tart is hard to find now except at retro restaurants).
Our custard – the one we’re used to in India – was bequeathed to us by the Empire. But the imperialists were merely following the lead of a certain Mr Bird. And thanks to the Brits and to the aforementioned Bird, genuine custard is now an endangered species.
It happened this way. In 1837, Alfred Bird, obviously an early prototype of Ferran Adrià, opened a shop in Birmingham under a sign "Alfred Bird, FCS. Experimental Chemist."
Mr Bird had a wife who loved custard. Unfortunately, she was also allergic to eggs. Out of devotion to her, this 19th century Ferran Adrià invented an eggless custard. He looked at the chemical properties of eggs and reproduced their thickening and binding qualities by using purely vegetarian ingredients.
Shortly afterwards, Bird’s custard powder went on sale. It consisted of sugar and cornflour, artificially coloured and flavoured to approximate the taste of real custard. Housewives and lazy chefs loved it because all you had to do was to heat milk and add Mr Bird’s powder. Because there were no eggs, there was no danger of curdling and no care or attention needed to be devoted to the dish. Of course it did not really taste like a true custard but if you used it only as a sauce, how did it matter?
The Raj memsahibs who sailed out to India were not great cooks so they came armed with packets of Bird’s custard powder which they passed on to their servants. That tradition survives to this day though there are many other brands in the market, each more disgusting than the last.
Therefore, real custard never really had a chance in this country. Because most of us don’t even know its taste, chefs (who are taught how to make the real thing in catering college) can’t be bothered with the complicated version. Besides, there is now an instant custard mix in which you add some chemical powder to cold milk and – hey presto! – a thick substance with the consistency, colour and taste of refrigerated vomit is produced. This makes it even easier for crap bakeries to produce this kind of artificial custard.
Till now, those of us who wanted the real thing were foiled by the ubiquity of the disgusting commercial version. Some of us were lucky enough to buy tetra paks of real custard when we were abroad and to bring them back. Vasantha, for instance, even insists on tetra pak custard for her trifle. While I do love the taste of packaged real custard (it is a baby food memory, remember?), you can’t always depend on friends to bring you tetra paks from abroad. And I lack the expertise to make a good custard at home.
A month ago, I had custard cravings and there was none to be found. I thought about it and realised that most bakery chefs probably knew how to make a real custard. We keep ordering cakes and desserts from bakeries. Why not ask the chefs if they can make a Crème Anglaise (they get insulted if you ask them to make custard so you have to use poncy French names) to order?
I started with Setz because it has the best ice creams and desserts in Delhi. Chef Nick made me two litres of creamy vanilla-flecked Crème Anglaise. Encouraged by the quality of his custard, I next tried the Oberoi patisserie where chef Deep, newly arrived from Bangalore and looking like Heston Blumenthal, is reworking the menu with his deep understanding of patisserie. I had no interest in Deep’s desire to be like Pierre Herme but I thought to myself "if this guy is so into desserts, he must know how to make a great Crème Anglaise."
I was right. Deep’s custard was rich and wonderful and after a night in the fridge, it tasted even better.
Hey! I said to myself. I’m on to something. I called the Maurya next. Yes, they would take the orders for Crème Anglaise. Their version was slightly thinner and probably healthier than Deep’s but chefs Vikas and Francis turned out a delicious custard. Finally, I called the Hyatt Regency where the pastry chef Devender Bungla produced a thick Crème Anglaise with a wonderful depth of flavour.
I checked with other hotels. They all said that if you gave them 24-hour notice (as you do with a cake to order) they would be happy to make Crème Anglaise. The problem of course is that this does not come cheap. Their custards are as expensive as their cakes and breads. And while people are willing to pay money for fancy cakes, everyone looks at you a little strangely when you splash out on custard.
But I reckon it’s worth it. Some people get their jollies from poncy desserts, fancy cakes and over-elaborate macaroons.
Not me. Give me a large bowl of custard and a small spoon (it lasts longer that way) and I am a very happy man.
From HT Brunch, December 4
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