I firmly believe that dessert is important for morale. It’s convivial. It’s ceremonial. Most nights of the week it’s serviced with a piece of 90 % chocolate and the last bit of my glass of red wine while I silently slink into the easy part of the evening.
But when you’re entertaining it’s the section of the event that encourages you to push back from the table a little and let loose with your opinions. Donald Trump and misogyny? Oh, gracious, pull up a chair. Let’s get started.
Without dessert a meal with friends feels like the first part of a parentheses, open and expectant – unfinished. (You’re never really sure when the whole thing should come to a close.)
Dessert helps to punctuate things. Now that we’re old and boring and most likely being woken at dawn by knee high folk who trumpet from their cots for ‘TOAST’ while the sky is still twinkling, dessert is a gleaming moment of levity, that also lets you know that in approximately 1 hour it would be perfectly appropriate to start thinking about gathering your things.
What we all need are more desserts that satisfy more people. Gluten free; sure. Refined sugar free; absolutely. Made well ahead of time, so they can stealthily lie in wait in the fridge until their moment to shine; of course. And a little bit interesting? Yes please.
These baked honey and bay custards have quickly become a firm favourite in this house. They take an unsung ingredient, the bay leaf- and elevate it to something unexpectedly elegant. Bay leaves traditionally lie sleepily in my spice drawer waiting to add an aromatic lilt to a beef bourgingon, a lamb ragu or a pot of beans (do try them there). There’s the initial nasal twang of menthol and then there’s the musky sweetness that comes to the fore. It plays in the same team as clove and nutmeg, Earl Grey tea and heather. They take a simple coddling dessert like bake custard and infuse it with a mysterious sassiness. I’ve been serving these custards sweetened with honey and topped with poached pears, but there’s no reason why rice malt syrup or maple syrup wouldn’t work just as well. Similarly, give the fruits a twirl depending on the season; macerated strawberries or plums, persimmons or blackberries would all be brilliant. The hazelnuts aren’t essential, but do add a nice textural contrast. Similarly pecans or walnuts would work, or crumbled bits of cookies would shine.
Try these custards with bay, then keep the method in rotation and swap in some other elements of your spice drawer; sticks of cinnamon, a grating of nutmeg, some studs of clove would all be valiant. The oven baking in a water bath is the perfect no fuss way to ensure a smooth custard; no endless stirring or swiping the backs of spoons- just let it gently set on its own. You’ll know for certain that they’re done when they’re firm around the edge but still have a jolly wobble to their centre.
I like to make double of this recipe- six is my perfect number for a dinner party these days. That way there’s one each to go around – and two left for breakfast with the small fry at sparrow’s crack the next morning.
As I said; dessert can be vital for morale.
This post was written in collaboration with Schwartz
Baked Honey Bay Custards with Pears
Makes 4 custards
200 ml whole milk
150 ml cream
3 bay leaves
4 egg yolks
60 ml runny honey
2 pears, peeled, halved, cored and poached in simmering water until just soft.
12 hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
Additional honey to drizzle and serve
1_ Add the milk, cream and bay leaves to a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add a lid to the saucepan and turn off the heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes.
2) Preheat the oven to 160C/320F and grease four ramekins or small bowls of 1 cup capacity.
2) Whisk together the egg yolks, egg and honey until smooth.
4) Remove the bay leaves from the milk/cream. Pour 1/4 of the milk/cream mix through a sieve into the egg and honey mix and stir to combine. Add the remaining milk/cream and stir to combine, being careful not to create too many air bubbles.
5) Boil the kettle. Pour the custard mix evenly into the four bowls. Place the bowls in a large roasting tray and place it in the oven. Gently pour boiling water into the roasting tray until it comes up half the side of the bowls. Close the oven door and bake for 45 minutes, until the edges are set and the centre has a slight wibble.
6) Transfer to the fridge to cool until ready to serve.
7) To serve top the custards with half a poached pear, some chopped roasted hazelnuts and a drizzle of honey.