March 26, 2012
As a cooking teacher, I’m given at times to spouting aphorisms. One that I’ve said on multiple occasions is, “The whole world is a custard.” Think about it. It’s true. There are oodles of dishes in many of the world’s culinary traditions that involve solidifying some liquid with eggs, or parts of eggs. Quiches, flans, cheesecakes, khanom mo gaeng, melktert, and chawanmushi are all custards. Any preparation that uses eggs and heat to solidify a liquid is a custard.
Scientifically, the “custard” process is well understood. Individual proteins are denatured by heat, breaking the bonds that restricted their “natural” structure. With enough heat, the denatured proteins bond with other denatured proteins into clumps that capture and sequester water. Add too much heat and the clumps tighten to a point where the water is forced out. Heat the proteins too fast and the clumps form too quickly without trapping water. Even when the custard is successfully formed, water may escape over time.
But let’s not think about custards for a moment. Let’s think about how I’m always winding up with a half can of leftover coconut milk. A few years back, a niece of mine prepared a Thai‑style stew with a bunch of vegetables cut into chunks, chicken pieces, canned coconut milk, and Thai‑style curry paste. I didn’t much appreciate the overcooked ingredients, but I liked the concept. I make a similar dish now on average of once a week. It’s my four‑ingredient dinner. One ingredient is the protein, usually precooked. Recent examples are blanched shredded chicken that was previously marinated in Shaoxing wine and cornstarch; bite‑sized, deep‑fried pork meatballs seasoned with salt, pepper, and cumin; pan‑fried, butterflied shrimp; and pan‑fried beef strips that had been marinated in thick soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and roasted sesame oil. The second ingredient is a single vegetable cut into bite‑sized pieces. Examples recently have included kale, chard, cabbage, onions, zucchini, and a multitude of Chinese greens. The last two ingredients are the coconut milk and the curry paste.
For two servings, I combine half a can of coconut milk (200 ml [31⁄2 fl oz]) with a couple of heaping tablespoons of the curry paste. The ratio is somewhat a matter of taste, practice, what type of curry paste, and individual brand difference. The five common types of curry paste are red, green yellow, Massaman, and Phanaeng; my current favorite is red, but a few weeks ago it was Massaman. The two ingredients are whisked together in a bowl until homogenous.
Once all the prep is completed, the vegetable is cooked in a wide frying pan in a little vegetable oil. When mostly cooked, the curry paste‑coconut milk mixture is added and brought to a boil. This is then combined with the precooked protein and the mixture served in large, shallow bowls.
It’s a great one‑dish meal that’s low in carbohydrates and high in flavor. But I’m left with half a can of coconut milk. I always transfer the milk to a jar and refrigerate it. The milk is usually good for about a week. It may just get used for another four‑ingredient dinner, but it also may start developing mold before I get around to using it.
A while back, I was cruising the fiche cuisine of the ELLE à table website and came across flan coco, a custard made with equal parts of sweetened, condensed milk and coconut milk. The custard was cut into small squares and served in little candy papers. It looked like a mignardise to me. I now had something I could make with the leftover coconut milk.
I simplified the recipe down to eggs, coconut milk, and sugar plus a little grated, dried coconut to sprinkle for decoration, similar to the original recipe. The big issue when making this recipe is how much egg. Depending on who you read, the egg to liquid ratio, by volume, should be from one to four up to one to two. The higher the egg concentration, the firmer the custard but the more the custard tastes of egg. I chose a low egg to liquid ratio which made the custard very delicate and difficult to handle, but let the coconut flavor come through.
egg (see note below)
200 ml (31⁄2 fl oz)
25 g (2 T)
1. Line a 14‑cm (51⁄2‑in) by 7 cm (23⁄4‑in) loaf pan with plastic wrap. Brushing a little butter on the bottom of the pan will help the plastic stay in place and remain flat. Be sure to leave enough extra wrap to make it easy later to remove the cooked custard with the plastic.
2. Preheat your oven to 180 °C (355 °F). Bring sufficient water to a simmer to fill your bain marie. (See below)
3. Whisk the egg, coconut milk, and sugar together until the sugar dissolves. If you wish, you can strain out the chalazae. Pour the mixture into your previously prepared loaf pan. Be careful so that the loose ends of plastic wrap don’t fall into the custard.
4. Set the loaf pan inside another larger loaf pan or in a deep baking dish and place the two in your oven. Fill the outer dish with water until it comes most of the way up the side of the inner loaf pan without causing it to float. The level of the water should be about equal to the level of custard.
5. Close your oven door, and bake the custard until set. The time will vary with conditions, but it should be around 20 to 25 minutes. The custard is done when it appears firm in the center. It still may jiggle a bit, but it should be a firm jiggle. When cooked, remove the inner loaf pan from the water, and set aside in your refrigerator until cold.
6. Remove the custard from the loaf pan by lifting carefully on the loose ends of plastic wrap. Place the custard on a flat surface, such as a small baking sheet and continue to refrigerate until serving.
7. To serve, cut the custard into small squares, and place a square on each of the individual serving dishes. Sprinkle a little dried coconut on the tops. Serve along with a small spoon.
Note: The mass of a standard, shelled, size “large” egg in the United States is 50 g, but that is only an average size. The actual size can vary quite a bit. Choose a large specimen if using this size egg or increase the egg size.