In Italy, if you want to point out someone’s stupidity, you might refer to their chicken sized brain. Very unfair as, far from stupid, chickens have also been gifting us for thousands of years with meat that is beloved by most and with the PERFECT food : the egg. Think about it: the egg is the source of life and, in the kitchen, is one of the most versatile items. It can be used for airy meringues or rich custards; mixed with oil or water it creates an array of sauces; it imparts flavour and substance to anything from drinks to breads; it makes pastries shine and it can be fried, roasted, baked, fermented and pickled. You get my point.
Chickens are the most common bird and in excess of 24 billion of them are walking the planet – and that is without counting those chickens that are raised (and killed) for meat consumption.
As a child, every Summer in the country, I would beg the nearby farmer’s kids to let me climb the chicken coop ladder to go retrieve eggs – they probably couldn’t quite understand the attraction of what was, to them, a chore, but obliged this nerdy city kid. The characteristic stench was overpowering – we had to crawl in and slide our little hands under the chicken butts to find our treasure which was warm and dirty and strangely comforting. Once scrubbed clean, I would poke a little hole in the shell, insert a straw and suck until the powerful taste of the yolk would send me into fits of delight. The word salmonella hadn’t entered my vocabulary yet but I never got sick. To this day, the taste of yolk is one of my favourite food profiles. Which might explain why I have always been so in love with custards – silky and rich and…eggy.
I am the self-proclaimed Queen of custards. I started making them as an after school snack, experimenting with adding chocolate or espresso since I was 8, and there isn’t a custard I haven’t mastered.
One of the easiest custards to make is Crema Catalana, a Spanish recipe heading from Cataluna, most likely invented by the local Jewish community. It’s often lumped in with creme brulee but, while both are custards, Crema Catalana is heavily scented with cinnamon and lemon and it’s not baked but chilled. I made Crema Catalana for years at the restaurant and here is my personal, foolproof, recipe.
Lately, I have been considering getting a few chickens. I live in a semi-rural area where chickens, goats, donkeys and horses are allowed. I would love to be able to scramble eggs in the morning just retrieved from under a chicken butt but the truth is, the chickens probably wouldn’t survive Ottie and Portia’s criminal fascination with birds. So a goat might make an appearance in my yard instead – it’a cheap form of lawn mowing and, if I get the hang of milking, you might be cursed with a string of goat milk/yogurt and cheese recipes. We’ll see.
RECIPE – Yields 6/8 servings
1 liter/1 quart full fat milk
50 g sugar/3.5 tablespoons sugar (plus more for the caramelization)
40 g/2.5 tablespoons cornstarch
Peel of half a lemon
Peel of half an orange
1 large cinnamon stick or 2 small ones
6 egg yolks
1. Place the milk, cinnamon, orange and lemon peel in a pot. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat off and let sit for one hour. Remove cinnamon sticks and peels.
2. Beat the yolks with the sugar and cornstarch in a pot until well combined and light. Add the milk, heat on medium heat and whisk constantly until the mixture starts to thicken.
3. Strain the custard through a sieve into a pitcher. Pour the content into 6 ramekins, cover and refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.
4. When ready to serve, sprinkle each crema with a thick coating of sugar. Using a kitchen blowtorch, caramelize the sugar. If you don’t have a blowtorch, place the ramekins under the broiler/grill for 30 seconds.
All photos found in the public domain