This is the pitcher I picked up at an antique gallery (Christian La Brocante) in nearby Saint-Coulomb. I say ‘picked up’ because when I went to pay for it (for a mere 2 euros), the owner threw it in for free with the other items I was buying. EVEN BETTER, I thought, as the pitcher was destined for destruction. Well, not destruction, really…more like a calculated deterioration. The plan was to use it as a vinegar pot for making red wine vinegar.
I discovered a while back that large ceramic coffee pots work really well for making vinegar and they’re a whole lot easier to stash in the back of a dark cupboard than the gallon-size traditional vinegar pots you can buy. (A lot cheaper, too.) Custom vinegar pots have a small tap at the bottom for decanting the vinegar without disturbing the ‘mother’ (a slimy disk of bacteria that ferments the wine into vinegar). Turns out, the spout on a coffee pot works just as well. The fermentation process totally ruins the coffee pot, though, discoloring it inside and out (one year, I had tiny little fruit flies floating around the spout and leaving a dark, vinegary deposit in their wake that I couldn’t wash off) and permeating the inside with a vinegary scent. Two euros…or zero euros… was about the price I wanted to pay for a pot that was just going to get trashed while sitting in the back of a cupboard.
Once home, I set the coffee pot on the counter till I could add the mother and pour in some wine. Then, a funny thing happened…I started to like the look of the thing. Mind you, this is a coffee pot without pedigree. It is not made of fine French china, faience or stoneware, and it was probably part of an inexpensive dish set. Its colors go with absolutely nothing in my kitchen. But something about the shape of it, the funny little crook of its handle got me thinking it might be too good for a vinegar pot. Maybe I could keep it for a water pitcher, only I already have a good half dozen of (very pretty) water pitchers. I’d need a better use if I was going to make room for it in my already overstuffed dish cabinet. Then it came to me. A custard crock! I could just see it filled to the rim with my grandmother’s recipe for cold, creamy, vanilla-laced custard –and the lid meant I could easily store the custard in the fridge. Nevermind that Grandmother always kept her boiled custard in old instant coffee jars or that I have plenty of large, lidded jars in my kitchen…I’d found the excuse to spare the coffee pot. All I needed to do then was make some custard.
Homemade Boiled Custard
I grew up on this custard. My grandmother would serve it often: on its own or with pound cake and sometimes she’d bake it in small, glass custard cups until set, then top it with a sprinkling of nutmeg and a dollop of meringue that she’d broil until just set. My best memories of Grandmother’s Custard, though, are when she’d make a big batch and bring it over when I was sick. The whole jar was mine to spoon (or drink!) and the cool, sweet taste of her love soothed many a sore throat and hot, feverish body.
I don’t prepare custard as often as my grandmother did (though I may start, now that I have a bona fide CUSTARD CROCK), but I have made this recipe often enough to have put my own spin on it. First off, I’ve given a sugar range for times when I want something that’s a tad less sweet, and added a pinch of salt because I believe just a hint of salt brings out the best in sweet recipes. Second, I’ve adapted it to the French crème anglaise method of cooking custard (Grandmother just cooked everything together in a double boiler) which is faster and more reliable. And finally, I’ve made it my go-to vanilla ice cream recipe. The texture’s perfect…all you have to do is pour the cooled custard into an ice cream maker, and churn. (Note: When making ice cream, use the full amount of sugar.)
¾ cup (150 g.) to 1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 quart (1 liter) milk, preferably whole
2 tsp.(10 ml.) vanilla extract or ½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped from inside
Whisk together the eggs, sugar, and salt in a large bowl until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth.
Have ready a fine-meshed strainer and a large bowl.
Bring the milk and the scraped vanilla bean and seeds, if using, to a rolling boil in a large saucepan. Whisk the milk into the egg mixture little by little until all the milk is incorporated. Return the custard to the saucepan, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat the back of a spatula or wooden spoon or an instant read thermometer reaches 180˚ – 185˚F (80-85˚C). (Note, if you’re worried at all about the custard curdling, cook it in a double boiler over simmering but not boiling water instead.)
Once the custard has thickened, strain it immediately into the clean bowl. Stir in the vanilla extract, if using, and cool.