CUSTARD PUDDINGS, sauces and fillings accompany the seven ages of man in sickness and in health. Rarely anywhere, however, are these delicacies prepared in ways that enhance their simple charm . . . " Thus, with simple eloquence, did Irma S. Rombauer introduce the first category of desserts in "Joy of Cooking."

Boy, was she right.

A lousy custard -- pockmarked and papery like an overfried egg, or weepy, or lumpy, or burned -- is worse than stale popcorn. The problem is that, like so many guileless things, it must be perfectly prepared. There is not way to protect or disguise a wounded custard. Even a child too young to speak can recognize -- and reject -- one.

Actually, in this day of instant puddings and artificial sauces, we don't find so many references to custard. Think of the last quiche you were served. The odds are it was thin, the crust was greasy and the filling overwhelmed the egg and milk binding. The word custard, which should call forth a vision of the white clifs of Dover shimmering on a sunny day, probably never came to mind. Taste a proper quiche. It should be a pillow of bliss, 1 1/2 inches or more of savory custard discreetly seasoned and enclosing a discreet amount of filling, a welcome respite for teeth used to working overtime tearing and grinding beef.

Custards may, in fact, be too easy to eat. "The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages" reports that the ancient Greeks thought they "were suitable only for women and children," and Seneca charged that Apicius' custard recipes "softened Roman fiber." By the Middle Ages the English, who acquired their sweet tooth early and developed blanc-manger as a dessert, held the European custard championship.

The French stole their recipes (which wasn't hard to do because, as one chronicle noted, "all cremes are made in the like manner; the taste and color only vary). As the "Horizon Cookbook" neatly puts it, the French "renamed them cremes (from the Latin cremare, to burn) after pitfalls presumably encountered."

So in time there were baked custards and boiled custards (which never really should boil, for they will curdle), custard pastry cream and custard sauce, custard puddings, custard tarts and even fried custard. Savory custard was cut up into small pieces and used to garnish consomme.

As long as there was a concerned cook to tend them carefully, they came out fine in any form. But as our lives became more frantic and our culinary quests more esoteric, the cooking precision custards demand and the gentle, subtle taste rewards they offer combined to force them from favor. Consider this backhanded compliment in a bookbook of a decade ago: "The desserts in this section help use the daily quota of milk. The simplest are well adapted for service to children or to sick adults, but a little care in garnishing and serving makes them interesting to sophisticated palates."

In making a custard, milk or cream is thickened when cooked with egg yolks. It is not a difficult process, but it cannot be rushed. Excess heat is the enemy. If the oven temperature is too high or the custard is left too long to bake, it will be flawed. Atop the stove there is constant danger that, should the liquid be warmed too much, too near the boiling point, the yolks will cook solid and the emulsion will curdle.

There are two methods of avoiding this disaster. For those with a saintly quantity of time and patience, the double boiler serves admirably. The mixture is stirred in the top half, kept out of contact with the simmering water in the base. Those with a surpressed desire to walk a tightrope can make their custard over direct heat. In either case, stir with a spoon or whisk, but don't beat the liquid to a froth. A custard sauce is ready when it "coats the back of a spoon." When the surface bubbles disappear, dip the spoon into the sauce. Remove it and pull your finger across the back. If the trail you make remains, the sauce has thickened. In place of a safety net, you might want to resort to a thermometer. Don't let the temperature climb over 180 degrees before removing it from the heat. (The temperature will rise for a time, so keep stirring.) Incidentially, custards that call for flour or cornstarch, pastry creams and some puddings won't curdle if they reach the boiling point. Don't push your luck, though.

Some other hints on custard: For custards that are to be unmolded, beat the eggs lightly before cooking. This produces a firm custard. The more you beat, the lighter and more porous the cooked custard will be. For a brown crust, beat the eggs to a froth before mixing them with milk. Pour hot but not boiling water into the pan around the cups or mold when custard is being baked in the oven. Boiling water causes pockmarked custard. Don't serve creme caramel the day you make it. Refrigerate it overnight before serving and the caramel will behave properly when the dessert is unmolded.

As custards continue to cook when out of the oven, remove those intended to be served cold as soon as a knife blade inserted an inch in from the outside edge of the baking dish comes out clean. If you wait until it tests clean in the middle, the custard will be overcooked by the time it cools. Warm custards are ready when the knife blade tests clean one inch from the center.

Since all this took so long to explain, let's skip appetizer and entree custards and concentrate on dessert. The following have been borrowed from the source noted for the kustard klutch. SWEET CUSTARD (6 to 8 servings) 1 quart milk 1 piece (2 inches) vanilla bean or 2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/2 cup honey with 2 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 4 whole eggs 2 egg yolks 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind

Scald the milk with the vanilla bean or extract, honey mixture and salt; then cool. Beat eggs and egg yolks together. Add milk mixture to eggs. Beat until smooth. Add the grated lemon rind. Pour into a 6-cup mold or individual custard cups. Bake in a pan of water in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes or until a knife comes out clean when inserted 1 inch from edge of custard. Chill and, if desired, unmold. -- From "The Horizon Cookbook" BLANC -- MANAGER (6 servings) 1 cup finely ground blanched almonds 2 1/2 cups heavy cream 3/4 cup sugar 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin 1 teaspoon rose water (optional) 1 teaspoon almond extract 3 egg whites, stiffly beaten 1/8 teaspoon salt

Pour 1 1/2 cups cold water over almonds and let them stand for 2 to 3 hours. Strain through a cloth, pressing hard on almonds to extract all possible liquid. Reserve almond "milk," discard the nuts. Scald the cream with the sugar, stirring until sugar is melted. Soak the gelatin in 1/2 cup cold water, dissolve in the hot cream, then cool. Flavor with rose water and almond extract and combine with the almond milk. When the mixture begins to set, fold in the egg whites with the salt. Pour into a 2-quart buttered ring mold and chill until set. Unmold. Fill with berries, serve with an almond flavored custard sauce. -- From "The Horizon Cookbook" CUSTARD SAUCE (Creme Anglaise) (About 2 1/2 cups) 2 cups milk 4 egg yolks 1/3 cup sugar 1 piece (1 inch) vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Heat the milk with the vanilla bean to the point of a boil. Turn off the heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Remove the bean and reheat the milk. In a small bowl beat the egg yolks and sugar together until the mixture is smooth and lemon colored. Slowly pour some of the milk into the bowl, whisking vigorously. Pour all into the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat, add extracts if using them, strain sauce into a bowl and chill it. CREME BRULEE (6 servings) 4 egg yolks 2 cups cream Pinch salt 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup brown sugar

Beat the egg yolks until thick and lemon-colored. Heat the cream to boiling point and simmer exactly 1 minute. Pour slowly over egg yolks. Return to heat and cook over water, stirring constatnly until just thickened. Add salt and vanilla. Pour into 8-inch shallow ovenproof dish. Cover and chill at least 6 hours, preferably overnight. Half an hour before serving, sift the brown sugar and sprinkle evenly 1/4-inch deep over the surface. Work quickly. Put under broiler, 6 inches away from heat, until sugar melts. Leave oven door open. Return at once to refrigerator. The sugar will stay on top, making a caramel crust. -- From "Father Was a Gourmet," by Carol Truax RAISIN-BREAD PUDDING (4 servings) 2 cups milk, scalded 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1/4 cup sugar 2 eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla 6 slices raisin bread, cubed

Combine milk, butter or margarine, and sugar in a small bowl. Beat eggs slightly in a medium-size bowl; slowly stir in milk mixture and vanilla. Pour over bread in a buttered 4-cup baking dish. Let stand 15 minutes. Set baking dish in shallow pan; place on oven shelf; pour boiling water into a pan to a depth of 1 inch. Bake in a 350-degree over 45 minutes, or until puffy-firm. Serve warm with cream. -- From "Family Circle Favorite Recipes Cookbook" COCONUT CUSTARD (6 servings) 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 piece (2 inches) stick cinnamon Liquid from a medium-sized coconut, 1/2 cup, about 2 cups grated coconut (the white inside of a coconut, with brown skin peeled off, coarsely chopped then grated fine in a blender or food processor) 3 cups milk 4 whole eggs, lightly beaten 2 tablespoons butter, or 1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds

In a saucepan combine the sugar, cinnamon stick and coconut water. Stir the mixture over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the coconut and continue to cook the mixture, stirring, until the coconut is transparent, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Stir in the milk, mixing thoroughly. Simmer, over moderate heat, stirring from time to time, until the mixture has thickened and a spoon drawn across the bottom leaves a clean path. Pour 1/2 of the mixture into the eggs, beating constantly with a whisk. Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, over low heat until it has thickened. Do not let it boil. Remove from the heat and pour into a flameproof serving dish (a 1-quart souffle dish is fine), cool, then refrigerate for several hours. Just before serving, dot the pudding with the butter, and put it under the broiler until the top is lightly browned; or garnish with slivered almonds. -- A mexican recipe from "The Book of Latin American Cooking" by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz SOUR CREAM CUSTARD CHERRY TART (1 pie) Rich tart pastry (see below) 3 eggs 1/3 cup sugar 3/4 cup sour cream 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 2 cups pitted sweet cherries (or peaches or apricots)

Line a 9-inch flan ring with pastry. Chill, preferably in freezer, for at least 1 hour.

Set oven at 350 degrees.

Beat eggs with sugar, sour cream and vanilla.

Arrange pitted cherries in unbaked tart shell. Pour egg mixture over them. Bake about 45 minutes on lowest rack of oven, or until custard is firm and crust is brown. Serve chilled. Rich Tart Pastry 2 cups sifted flour 3 tablespoons sugar 3/4 cup butter 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind 3 hard-cooked egg yolks, mashed 2 raw egg yolks

Place flour in a bowl. Make a well in the center. Add all ingredients to well. The butter should not be ice cold, nor should it be so soft that it is oily.

With finger tips, make a paste of center ingredients, gradually incorporating flour to form a smooth, firm ball of dough. Work quickly so the butter does not become oily. When sides of the bowl are left clean, the pastry is finished. Wrap it in wax paper and chill until dough is firm enough to roll.

Roll pastry between sheets of wax paper. -- From "The Art of Fine Baking" by Paula Peck