Baked custard: always a favorite, with or without ducks' eggs

Custard is a favorite of almost everyone. Its smooth, rich texture appeals to both toddlers and adults. Variations abound in numerous cultures -- from the flan of Spanish cookery to the delicious custard sauce of the British.

Julia Child writes this in ``The French Chef Cookbook'': ``Folding the tongue around a spoonful of caramel custard is certainly one of life's precious moments.''

Two old cookbooks from my collection add interesting sidelights to its preparation.

``The Housekeeper Cook Book'' (1894) says that milk for custard must be ``new milk.'' It also recommends that only egg yolks be used as the whites ``do not enrich it, and are of no especial value in it.''

``White House Cook Book,'' circa 1900, says ``to make custards look and taste better, ducks' eggs should be used when obtainable; they add very much to the flavor and richness, and so many are not required as of ordinary eggs. Four ducks' eggs to the pint of milk make a delicious custard (as opposed to eight hen eggs to a quart of milk).''

Of course, variations on anything are the spice of life. Custard takes well to the addition of a spoonful of maple syrup, jam, or jelly. Or try a fresh raspberry or strawberry sauce or crushed nut brittle with whipped cream. Custard 3 eggs 1/3 cup sugar or 1/4 cup honey 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 cups milk 1 teaspoon vanilla, or to taste Pinch of nutmeg

Beat eggs, sugar or honey, and salt slightly. Scald milk until crinkly and pour into egg mixture, stirring constantly. Add vanilla. Strain into 6 custard cups or a 1 1/2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Set in pan with hot water about 1 inch deep.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes at 325 degrees F. or until a silver knife blade inserted at edge of custard comes out clean. Custards will finish baking after removal from oven. Serve warm or cold.

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