I consider this dessert a pivotal personal achievement. I’ve been putting it off for a long time now since a certain incident involving custard. Very stubborn custard. It was just awful. I don’t like to talk about it…
…Ok you twisted my arm.
So it was New Year’s Eve and I wanted to make something fancy to celebrate. We bought a shrimp ring and veggies with dip, I made sweet and sour cocktail meatballs and a layered salsa dip. There was just the dessert left to contend with. My mother started making this Angel Icebox Dessert for family functions years ago and it quickly became a family favourite even rivalling my Oma’s coveted Cherry Delight. I thought I’d give it a try. How hard could it be right? Famous last words.
So there are three different layers. I didn’t have the time or patience to make my own meringue nests or pavlovas so I bought some. Don’t judge me, I’m impatient. Next is the whipping cream. That’s easy. Then comes the custard.
Up until now I had never made custard and it was a little intimidating to say the least. Despite that I set aside my fears and soldiered on. I followed the recipe exactly. Six eggs yolks. Check. Sugar and salt. Check. Flour. Check. Scalded milk. After a googling what that even meant, check. Vanilla. Roger.
As I was stirring my custard in my makeshift double boiler feeling pretty darn happy with myself I’d come this far I realized to my horror that it wasn’t thickening. Why was this happening? What had I done wrong? Were the custard gods punishing me for some significant sin? I read and reread the recipe dozens of times finding no evidence to my fault. After 45 minutes of tedious stirring to no avail I decided to refrigerate it and hope for the best.
Nope. Not even a little thickening. It was custard soup. That just won’t do.
So my mother got a frantic phone call that day. Apparently the freshness of my eggs was questionable having bought them from a supermarket and not straight from the hen. I also should have used whole milk instead of 1% like I normally do.
Basically I became instantly and inconsolably depressed. She explained to me that I could try it again with an extra egg yolk and that should do the trick. I really didn’t have it in me to go through all that again so I cheated and used an instant custard powder Lee dotingly picked up for me at the store. It was still yummy, but it had a faint aftertaste of failure I wasn’t so fond of.
So yesterday I decided to best this custard thing. I was bigger. I was stronger. It wasn’t going to beat me again. So like my Mom suggested I used an extra egg yolk. After a few minutes of stirring it started to thicken like it hadn’t before. So of course, I turned up some happy music and danced like a maniac to celebrate. I jumped the gun. It’s thickening plateaued and, in my naivety, I crossed my fingers for a miracle then banished it to the refrigerator.
When I couldn’t get a hold of my Mom for some sage advice I called Lee at work for some comfort instead. After some quiet conversation he could tell something was bugging me.
Lee: “Are you ok?”
Me: (Sigh) “Yeah, I’m just worried about my custard.”
That’s not normal is it? I worried all afternoon if my custard would thicken and, like an overbearing parent, checked on it every few minutes.
And guess what happened?
After another frantic phone call to my Mom I was informed that custard isn’t like a gelatin or a pudding and it doesn’t thicken or set in the refrigerator. My bad. I shouldn’t have assumed. And apparently using whole milk for custard is absolutely imperative. Something about the high fat content.
So 19 eggs, 24 hours and a whole lot less sanity later I tried it again. This time with whole milk and a new carton of eggs. Whisk in hand, I was determined to kick some serious custard butt.
All I have to say is, perseverance has prevailed. I am the winner. I am the champion. I know where you live, custard. I don’t mind a rematch. Anytime. Anyplace.
Angel Icebox Dessert
Makes 12 – 15 individual desserts.
Source: Adapted from a handed down recipe.
6 egg whites
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup flour
3 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pint whipping cream
Almonds, sliced and toasted for garnish
Note: This dessert is best served the same day but each layer may be made ahead of time and stored separately until you’re ready to eat it. If stored assembled in the fridge the meringues collect condensation and become spongey.
To Make the Meringues:
Make the meringue first since they keep easily in an airtight container and take the longest to bake.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and position two racks towards the middle. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and tape them down with a bit of masking tape. Prepare your pastry bag with the tip of your choice and set it aside. I used a large star tip.
Combine the eggs whites and sugar in a double boiler or a heat proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water on medium heat. Gently whisk them until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch for about 3 – 5 minutes. Remove it from the heat and, using an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat it on high speed until stiff peaks form.
Fold in the vanilla gently until it is smoothly combined. Fill your pastry bag with the meringue and pipe the shapes onto the prepared baking sheets. Make a spiral starting from the center and circling out to make a rose shape.
Bake them for about 90 minutes – 2 hours or until the meringues are crisp and lightly browned. Turn the oven off and allow them to cool inside then transfer them to an airtight container for storage.
To Make the Custard:
Make the custard while the meringues are baking.
In a double boiler or a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water on medium heat whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, salt and flour.
Meanwhile bring a pot of the milk up on medium high heat. You have to scald the milk which means you have to let it come up to temperature slowly while stirring occasionally until steam rises and it foams slightly on the edges. Don’t let it come to a rolling boil. As soon as you see the steam and the foam take the pot off the heat and pour it gradually and slowly over the custard making sure to stir between additions to get all the custard lumps out.
Now the fun part. I was determined this time so I had the patience to stand there and stir the custard frequently for an hour until it thickened enough. It might take less or more time depending on factors like the freshness of the eggs, the fat content in the milk, the heat of the double boiler, etc. It will thicken very slowly and it’s important to keep stirring it, if not constantly then at least very often, to make sure a skin doesn’t form and it cooks evenly. You should do this until the milk foam is incorporated, it gets to the consistency of thick pudding and you can see the whisk leave marks on the surface that don’t spread out. If you go very far past this point your custard could start to boil then become lumpy, grainy and overcooked.
Once you’re satisfied with the thickness take the bowl off the heat and cover it with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard so a skin doesn’t form. Then leave it out on the counter to cool to room temperature. It will thicken slightly while it cools but it does not set. You may store it in the refrigerator once it’s reached room temperature.
Once the custard is cooled liberally spread a layer of custard on top of the meringues. Then spoon a layer of whipping cream on top of that. Top with the toasted almonds and serve it immediately. Enjoy!