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Lucky dip - savoury custard's many forms

"it's nourishing, comforting and as soft as a butterfly wing on your cheek." Jill Dupleix

I had no need to do a lucky dip post - I have lots of ideas waiting to be converted into posts, but heck, I just felt like a lucky dip. And I turned up a book by a witch.

Her name is Gail Duff, and her book is Gail Duff's Vegetarian Cookbook and it was first published back in 1978 although my edition - the paperback is 1979.

She looks a bit witch-like does she not? Actually I don't think she was a witch back when she wrote this book, but she was indeed interested in country things and the turn of the English seasons. I have another book of hers called Country Wisdom from about the same period, which is about herbal cures and old wives tales and suchlike. A curiosity more than anything else. The cookbook, however, comes from my dalliance with vegetarianism back in the early 80s. Not that I dallied very much. I doubt that my young children would have gone for it. Gail Duff herself obviously became more and more interested in folksy pagan stuff and eventually became an actual witch and wrote a book about it - The Wheel of the Wiccan Year. I don't have that one.

There are lots of very usable recipes in the book in an English countryside, almost Jane Grigson kind of way and actually the recipes on the page I picked are quite good examples of this. I'm pretty sure I tried a few things from the book back then. No pictures though - not even any drawings at the beginning of chapters, just the occasional decorative border, and so you need to be tempted by the overall writing and the recipe titles. My chosen page is from the chapter on eggs, and a section on what she calls bakes and custards.

In her introduction she actually takes a fairly modern approach of describing a method with tips, rather than an actual recipe:

"Beat the eggs with herbs, seasonings and other flavourings such as mustard, and cook your chosen vegetables separately, chopping them either before or after cooking, whichever is most suitable. Mix the vegetables with the eggs and pour the mixture into a buttered flat, ovenproof dish (an oven to table one is best) and bake for 30 minutes in an oven preheated to 200ºC."

This is followed by four example recipes: Leek and olive bake, Artichoke and Edam bake, Spinach and sorrel custard, and Savoury cauliflower custard. The picture on the right is actually a chard and goat's cheese bake - but you get the idea. But hang-on - aren't these basically frittatas? And in one of them she separates the yolks and whites which are beaten and folded in. Isn't that a soufflé? Her next section, which she calls puddings - is actually more or less the same thing.

Pushing to the back of my mind these minor confusions I decided to try and find some pictures so fed in savoury custard and found that not only were there frittata, omelettes, quiches and soufflés to consider but also savoury panna cottas, sformata, chawanmushis, dashi and soi tans.

A good example is the cauliflower one - here are a variety of cauliflower savoury custards and bakes, and that's without even thinking about quiches, soufflés or frittata or indeed all those other things.:

From rustic to elegant, even a bit precious don't you think?

So what is a custard?

"The physical chemistry of the egg reaches a kind of apex in custard, in the balance between thin, thick and curdled. Its semi-liquid, semi-solid quality gives it both that delicious texture and its strange behaviour: you can walk across some custards, as once demonstrated on television." Oliver Thring - The Guardian

Take that a step further and that's when you start getting into all those other dishes that I mentioned. In my head I immediately thought frittata, but a frittata, of course is sort of a rustic kind of omelette - the kind I make on a regular basis from bits and pieces in the fridge. Ditto for quiche - well it's just the same thing in a pastry case isn't it?. I don't make soufflés but am dimly aware of it being a similar mix with you just separating the yolks and whites.

But as I looked I discovered that the Asians are into this too, but in a slightly different way. Instead of cream and milk they seem to use stocks and the cooking method seems to be either steaming or cooked in a bain-marie, like a European custard - crème caramel anyone? The picture at the top of the page is one of these - from Bon Appétit, and called Dashi steamed egg custard. This is a Korean version, but the Chinese - 'soi tan' meaning watery eggs, and the Japanese 'chawan mushi' meaning steamed in a tea cup are also big into this kind of dish. From a very superficial look it seems to me that the additions to these custards tend to be put on top as a kind of garnish rather than incorporated into the mix, but I may be wrong here. Below are some examples that I found: Savoury custard with mushrooms and pork, Baked savoury custard with cheese (Mark Bittman), Miso chawanmushi with smoked trout (Jill Dupleix) and Savoury egg custard (Poh Ling Yeow)

They seem to be rather smoother than the more rustic frittata type, and I gather they are generally regarded as comfort and baby food. But very elegant it seems to me - the sort of thing you might get as an amuse-bouche in a top end restaurant - and:

"Its simple looks and few ingredients belie the skill required: overcook and it becomes tough and rubbery." - Kirsten Jenkins - Feast Magazine

''You need to get the perfect ratio of eggs to dashi stock, to make it very, very light.'' Yasu Yoshida

Like the European versions though they are:

"easily adapted by changing the ratio of egg to stock, and adding elaborate toppings" Kirsten Jenkins - Feast Magazine

So I guess this little lucky dip has made me ponder on how one dish morphs into another, sometimes quite slightly and sometimes rather more radically. I guess the extremes in this instance are a rough, rustic frittata or Spanish omelette to a silky smooth Asian egg custard. And all of them infinitely variable and adaptable. Perfect for the times.

I never thought of leek and olives as a combination and a quick look shows me that it might be fairly common in a stew like dish but not with eggs. Well - what about Warm leek salad with olives and eggs - now that's quite a leap from Leek and olive bake - but same ingredients.


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