Adapted from the English Custard recipe in Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer (1969). This was the book that really taught me how to cook and I recommend it highly.
Chocolate custard was one of the major treats of my childhood. My grandmother Ligia Botts Mish (“Momee”) would make it for me every time I went to Lexington to visit. The chocolate custard was stored in the icebox in a glass quart milk bottle and poured out in small quantities for deserving children.
You can leave out the cocoa and then you have Crème Anglaise, which Craig Claiborne calls “one of the best dessert sauces ever devised.” But we just ate the custard alone, with a spoon. My late cousin Stuart Ganong also had fond memories of chocolate custard but did not believe it was possible to make it in one’s own kitchen.
Here are 3 pictures of Stuart and me with Momee at 212 Barclay Lane in Lexington in the summer of 1948. It isn’t clear what she is feeding us, but my money is on custard.
4 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ¾ cups milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ tablespoons cocoa
Place the yolks, sugar, salt, and cocoa in a saucepan and stir with a wire whisk until well blended. Heat the milk (I use the microwave) until it is almost but not quite boiling. Add the milk, quite gradually, to the yolk mixture, stirring with the whisk. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. (There is only one trick to making this dish and that is not to cook it over too high heat. The thing that thickens the custard are egg yolks, and if the heat is too high, these will “scramble,” so to speak, and the sauce will curdle.) Keep the spoon in constant motion, going this way and that way all over the bottom of the saucepan.
Caution: the sauce must cook thoroughly until it is piping hot, but it must not boil. As the sauce cooks it will gradually thicken. There is one classic way to tell when the sauce is done. Lift the spoon from the sauce and hold it over the pan. Quickly run the forefinger down the center of the spoon. If the finger does not make a lasting impression on the sauce, it is not done. When the sauce is thick enough the finger will leave a definite clear space with the custard coating on either side. Stir in the vanilla.
Serve hot or cold.