A custard is a preparation of milk or cream thickened with whole eggs or egg yolks. Custards can be flavored in countless ways, and they are often sweetened and served for dessert. Crème brûlée, crème caramel, flan, pot de crème, clafouti, zabaglione, ice cream, crème anglaise, pastry cream, and the classic American chocolate and vanilla puddings are all examples of custards. Other desserts, such as bread pudding and rice pudding, are also made with a custard. Many pies and tarts have custard fillings.
When I said I wanted to make a Parmesan Custard, my husband was weirded out. So was my brother. The idea that a savory custard seemed strange to both of them took me by surprise, and “You like quiche, don’t you?” popped out of my mouth. I left it at that—no need to explain when one taste would win them over. The moral of the story? Although they are less common than sweet custards, savory custards aren’t unheard of.
Parmesan Custards with Basil Oil & Balsamic Syrup
1 ½ cups balsamic vinegar
1 ¼ ounces basil leaves, blanched
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Nonstick pan spray
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups milk
1 clove garlic, grated
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs
4 ounces finely grated Parmegiano-Reggiano
Heat the balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan and simmer for 20 to 22 minutes, or until thickened and slightly syrupy. Let cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, combine the basil and oil in a blender and blend until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Grease 8 ramekins with nonstick pan spray. Combine the cream, milk, garlic, nutmeg, salt, and pepper in a small saucepan and heat to a simmer. Whisk together the eggs and Parmegiano in a medium bowl. Continue whisking while adding the hot cream mixture in a thin stream. Skim off any foam from the surface. Divide the mixture among the ramekins and place them into a roasting pan. Add enough hot water to the roasting pan to come half way up the sides of the ramekins and bake for 30 to 32 minutes, or until just set. Remove from the water bath and let cool. Strain the basil oil through a fine mesh sieve. Invert each custard onto an individual plate, drizzle with the balsamic syrup and basil oil, and serve immediately.
Serves 8 as an appetizer or first course. Ventilate your kitchen well while making the balsamic syrup because the smell of reducing vinegar is quite strong. The balsamic syrup will thicken as it cools, so be careful not to reduce it too far. If it does become too thick, simply stir in a splash of water to thin it out. By the way, balsamic syrup is a sneaky stand-in for pricey aged balsamic vinegar. The Parmegiano must be finely grated, preferably with a microplane, so that it melts immediately into the hot cream mixture. If the shreds of cheese are too large, they will sink to the bottom of the ramekins and just stay there. You can tell that the custards are done when they jiggle like gelatin and the edges start to shrink away from the ramekins. Be gentle when unmolding them because they are tender and delicate, especially when warm. I like to serve these savory custards warm or at room temperature with Craveable Croutons and either Caesar Salad or a salad of ripe tomatoes, basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt.