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With a few quality parts, baked custard becomes the perfect whole
Fresh ingredients, preferably organic ones, are central to making the kind of custard worthy of this heirloom custard cup.
ON MY MOST recent trip home to visit my parents, I was stricken with the need to possess a small brown custard cup in my mother's kitchen cabinet. The sole survivor from a set of six, the cup has been there as long as I can remember.

"Mom, can I take this cup home?" I asked impulsively. She looked baffled for a moment and then said yes.

It's a strangely seductive little custard cup — a Hall China piece from the 1950s. I know it came from a little restaurant my grandfather owned for a time on Pensacola Bay, so my mother must have inherited it and the others from him. They seem almost indestructible, and I can't imagine where the rest of them have gone. In order to see the little cup surrounded by others of its kind, I went on eBay and ordered a set.

My sister and I used to put chocolate pudding in the cups for after-school snacks. But their best and highest use was for baked custard, that most innocent and sublime of all the custard family of desserts.

 A Meaningful Custard
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Properly handled, three simple ingredients — eggs, sugar and creamy milk — comprise the silkiest and most satisfying desserts imaginable. Stirred together and cooked on top of the stove, they become a crème anglais, that essential dessert sauce that can transform a plain piece of cake or a piece of poached fruit into something memorable — almost meaningful. Baked in the oven, these same ingredients come together to form a thing in itself, a "whole" of such undeniable unity that one wonders how it ever came from separate parts at all.

Because a baked custard is almost too perfect, its simplicity is easily mistaken for plainness, which is, of course, quite a different thing. For this reason, the temptation to doll up a baked custard is almost overwhelming. If the cream were the perfect cream, straight out of a grass-fed Jersey cow, stationed in your back yard, if the eggs were the perfect eggs, with glowing yellow yolks standing at attention on top of their whites as soon as the eggs were cracked, and if the sugar were pure maple or perhaps the unrefined, straw-colored crystals of turbinado, then these ingredients alone would transcend the ordinariness that threatens a simple dish like this one.

But alas, our cream, even our best organic heavy cream, is sterilized and somewhat insipid compared to what our grandparents enjoyed. Our eggs are too often pale, ghostly reminders of the vibrant things they should be, and our refined white sugar smells sad and sour compared to the caramel and molasses aromas that come from raw sugar. How, then, are we to make a proper baked custard, a custard worthy of the old cup I found in my mother's cabinet? We could start by cheating. My mother always added a splash of vanilla extract and a sprinkling of grated nutmeg to the custards. The effect was almost numbing, and I sometimes wondered what it was about baked custard that grown-ups seemed to enjoy.

Then I discovered pots de crème baked with chocolate so luscious it renders the quality of the cream and eggs moot. In good pots de crème, a velvety texture speaks to the dish's heritage as a variation on basic custard, but the flavor is something altogether different. I had the same epiphany with crème caramel, the baked custard that rides on top of a puddle of melted sugar as long as it bakes and then slips upside down onto the plate in a halo of clear caramel. This is a truly fine dessert, but one that's all about the caramel and hardly about the custard at all. Ditto with crème brûlée. The dishes are good, but the custard in them is only a component of another kind of experience.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to make a straightforward custard that would not lean on chocolate or caramel or anything else to make it flavorful and good. I realized that what I wanted was a custard in which those three simple elements would shine in such a way that I would feel satisfaction with every mouthful. I wanted a custard worthy of the little brown cup. So I sought out the best cream I could get my hands on, some organic, unrefined sugar, and eggs from my friend Kerrie's happy little flock of chickens. The result was "A Meaningful Custard."

Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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