The perfect baked custard is delicate and fragile in color, texture and flavor. When properly prepared it is an elegant and understated end to a meal. Unfortunately, more often than not it appears before us as a pitted, watery catastrophe -- all of its subtleties destroyed by too hot an oven.
The secret to making a perfect baked custard is to blend milk with the minimum amount of eggs necessary to set the mixture and to bake it so slowly that it sets into a perfectly smooth, tender mass without the tiny holes, pitted surface and wateriness caused by cooking the custard too quickly.
To achieve the ideal texture and flavor balance, use whole eggs and milk. Custards made with egg yolks and cream are too eggy and rich in taste and too thick and creamy in texture; they lack the subtleties that make a custard great.
In the recipe below, the custard is lightly sweetened and flavored with vanilla extract. Use a fine-quality vanilla extract, or don't use any. Also, note that the custard cooks very slowly, so slowly that you may wonder if it will ever set -- it will, and perfectly, in 2 1/2 to 3 hours. THE PERFECT CUSTARD (8 servings)
6 extra large or 7 large whole eggs
1 quart milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup sugar, preferably superfine
Butter for custard dish
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs with a fork until just combined. Add the remaining ingredients and mix slowly with a large spoon until the mixture is well combined and the sugar is dissolved. Do not beat or stir so hard that the custard becomes frothy. The froth will not burst or dissolve during baking, but will harden into a rough, pock-marked surface on the top of the custard.
Lightly butter a 6- to 8-cup baking dish, then pour the custard through a strainer into the dish. Cover securely with aluminum foil.
To cook the custard slowly, place a rack in a large roasting pan and set the baking dish on it. Add enough cold tap water to the pan for the water level to be as high as the top of the custard.
Bake in a 275-degree oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of the custard just comes out clean, about 2 1/2-3 hours.
Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled. Some people like a sauce with their custard. If you wish, pass maple syrup in a small pitcher, or serve with a pure'e of strawberries (2 pints fresh strawberries pure'ed in a food processor with 2 to 3 tablespoons of sugar and the juice of half a lemon) or with raspberry pure'e (a 10 1/2-ounce package frozen raspberries pure'ed in a food processor with the juice of half a lemon and 1/4 cup water, then strained before serving).