We all have holiday traditions we remember from growing up. When I think about my own, i think about my mom slaving over Baked Alaska for my father's company Christmas party each year. I think about stockings and lottery tickets on Christmas Eve and new pajamas. And I think about baked custards.
In our house, baked custard wasn't reserved just for the holidays. My mom would often make it after getting out of the bath late at night, Murder She Wrote playing from our little counter-top television. I remember how I'd smell the warmly spiced vanilla aroma coming from the kitchen and know that the following day was going to be a good one.
In college I really missed my mom's custard and called to ask if she could email me the recipe. In the mail five days later, I received a very tattered copy of The Fanny Farmer Cookbook with a post-it note on the page for Baked Custards. 5 ingredients, less than an hour: could that really be it? I started making custards for myself and my roommates. During finals, they were a lifesaver late at night. In graduate school I didn't have much time to cook or bake, but when I came home for the holidays there was always custard.
Today, I do different versions of my mom's custard. Sometimes adding preserved lemons on top at the very end, other times doing an almond cardamom custard. For the holidays this year, I decided to test an Eggnog Custard using my mother's base recipe as a model, but simplifying it (not cooking the custard before it goes into the oven). The result? Still simple. Still wonderful. With a subtle eggnog flavor and a slightly boozy aftertaste. My apartment smells like Christmas. So much so that I just called my mom and walked her though the holiday version of her recipe. I wouldn't be surprised if she's baking them right now.
Some people feel negatively about baked custard because they've had tasteless, overly dense or chunky custards. This one is far from all of those things. It's surprisingly light, it's smooth, and the flavor is subtly sweet. The brandy or rum is optional, but if you're making these for adults I'd recommend it -- I used rum in mine and love the flavor it adds. You'll also want to make sure to use a whole fat eggnog. There are different versions on the market now ranging from non-fat to soy, but remember that you'd much rather have your custards set than save a few grams of fat in the long run.
What makes me smile most about this custard recipe is it's a tradition that I've made my own. And the older I get, the more I realize that's what the holidays are all about.
Baked Eggnog Custards
5 large eggs 3/4 cup sugar 1 cup eggnog 1 cup whole milk 1 cup heavy cream 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/4 cup brandy or rum, optional nutmeg, sprinkled on to, preferably freshly grated
Preheat oven to 325° F. Whisk together the eggs and sugar. Then whisk in the milk, cream, vanilla, eggnog, and alcohol together until well blended but not frothy. Pour through a relatively fine sieve to remove any unnecessary clumps. Portion into 8 ramekins or one 8-inch baking dish. Grate fresh nutmeg and sprinkle on top.
Place the ramekins in a roasting pan and add enough boiling water so that it comes halfway up the sides of each ramekin. A good trick for this: add the water once the roasting pan is already resting on your oven rack - that way you're not carrying around unbaked custards and sloshing water from one end of the kitchen to another.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until custard is slightly golden on the outsides and doesn't jiggle in the center when you shimmy the pan. Remove ramekins from the roasting pan and cool on a wire rack.
Serve warm or, if you want to serve them chilled, allow them to come to room temperature first, then cover and refrigerate. They are good, if refrigerated, for 2-3 days. Serve as is (what I usually do) or with whipped cream and an extra sprinkle of nutmeg on top.