Basic Egg Custard

When I was in 7th grade, my parents signed a form giving permission for me to participate in a raffle put on by my science class. The prize? Tiny baby chicks from our egg-incubation study. I am sure my folks were skeptical. Chickens? We lived in suburban Santa Cruz. People didn’t have chickens in our neighborhood.
But for some reason (perhaps owing to some spectacularly melodramatic pleading on my part?) they signed it.
It is possible that they’d done the math and figured the likelihood of my winning (8 chicks in a class of 35 kids) was slim. Maybe they thought saying yes would save them from having to break my heart and statistics would win out. Boy were they wrong. Only a few parents signed the forms, and I came home with not one but TWO tiny balls of fluff that afternoon.
Like any good 7th grader, I immediately informed my parents about the various duties we would all be expected to perform as new chicken-parents. Namely, I would be in charge of their socialization and upbringing (read: cuddling, playing with) while my parents would make sure the darling little things stayed alive (read: building coop/run, feeding, mucking coop, etc).
These two (named Rikki and Lucy) were the first of many chickens I would raise through my teenage years. I can’t say that I was a very good homesteader (wait, am I still allowed to use that word?), nor was I particularly interested in having chickens once they got past the fluffy-and-cute phase. I’m sure that most of the hard work was actually done by my folks, who tolerated my flights of fancy and let me go on pretending I was Laura Ingalls. Until, of course, they informed me that Laura “wouldn’t have gotten to eat sugar cereal, living out on the prairie and all”.

Still, though, I look back on that first day as a chicken-owner as the beginning of something pretty big. We now have chickens and ducks and a yard that provides a good amount of the fresh produce we consume. Would I be the person I am today if I hadn’t won that raffle in 7th grade? Who knows…maybe my parents DID know what they were getting me into when they signed that form, after all.
note: until I started raising chickens, I did not know eggs were seasonal. When the days get shorter, egg production slows and even stops in most birds, and we have made the choice to let our girls rest instead of installing artificial lights to keep them laying.
I can make do without a lot of things. I like to think of myself as pretty handy in the kitchen, and it generally takes a lot to really trip me up. However, when the chickens stop laying for the winter, it really throws a wrench into my plans. I LOVE fresh eggs.
Knowing what I know about the poultry and egg production industries, however, I will no longer support “farms” that de-beak or otherwise mis-treat their birds. So when free-range eggs come off the shelves, well, we make do. It’s not fun. I do not like it. But we go without.
This basic no-frills custard is the first thing I make when I have too many eggs. Think of it as a celebration: the ladies are back in business!

Basic Egg Custard
3 c milk (I use 1% or 2% for this recipe. Some people really like the silkier, richer flavor of whole milk or cream in a baked custard, but I have always liked this recipe a little lighter)
4 fresh eggs, cracked and scrambled lightly
3/4 c evaporated cane juice (or other light-colored granulated sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (use powdered if you can’t get the fresh stuff)

Find a baking dish (a casserole dish, ramekin, glass bowl, or pyrex cake pan would be fine, here) that will fit completely inside a larger high-sided pan. Place the smaller pan inside the larger pan: there should be space on all 4 sides. You’ll be filling this space with water once the pans are in the oven (making a water bath for the custard ensures that it comes up to temperature more slowly and the heat is distributed evenly, preventing the eggs from seizing and becoming grainy or rubbery).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl (sometimes I do this directly into the baking dish), combine the milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Do not add the nutmeg yet. Whisk until the eggs are completely combined and the sugar does not settle to the bottom of the bowl. Pour the mixture into the smaller pan. Sprinkle the nutmeg over the top of the mixture (it will float) and carefully place both pans in the oven. Using a pitcher or container with a pour-spout (I use my tea kettle for this), add warm water into the bigger pan until it is more than half-way up to the level of the custard mixture.

Bake this for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center of the custard comes out clean (it will seem wet, but there will be no egg on it).

This custard is delicious hot, but is probably my favorite breakfast of all time when it’s served cold the next morning. Ma Ingalls would approve.

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