A crackly, crunchy, creamy custard with an unexpectedly nutty flavor is just what we needed to revive dessert time. You can’t go wrong with an old-fashioned, egg-based custard in any flavor — chocolate, say. But if you’re looking for something with East-West appeal, this classic flavor in Asian desserts makes a great twist.
I got a real craving to make something cool and creamy after a friend brought her homemade coconut cream pie to a birthday party recently. The process was simple, she explained: beat eggs with sugar and some cornstarch, and slowly incorporate scalding-hot milk. Then flaked coconut is added, and the whole thing chills inside a baked pie crust shell. The steps are also similar to creating an ice cream base from scratch, or creme anglaise. The starch just stiffens the mixture up a little more, so that you can cut clean slices of it from a pie, or scoops from a ramekin if you choose to forego the crust.
Which I did. There are plenty of variations and nuances on how to make a creamy custard, but this is one easy amalgam, incorporating toasted black sesame seeds instead of coconut. Ground into a sweet paste to stuff inside buns, cakes, mochi, or to flavor ice cream with, black sesame is one of the most popular flavors for sweets in East Asia. It’s one of my favorites, period. It’s prized in spite of the strange bleakness of its color (or lack thereof), because it just tastes so great. Intensely nutty and savory-sweet at once, the stuff is also texturally stimulating, as the ground little seeds still offer some resistance.
I decided to play this up by only half-crushing the seeds in this custard. The flavor seeps into the heated milk and stains it grey this way, but individual toasted seeds float throughout. Toasting the sesame seeds is something to keep your eye on, because it can be so easily overdone. Scatter the seeds on a hot, wide pan with a thick bottom, and just as soon as the room becomes fragrant with toasted sesame, pour them out of the pan before they burn. You can lightly crush the seeds, once toasted, with a mortar and pestle, or run them for a few pulses in a food processor. For a more refined, silken texture, strain them out of the milk mixture completely once they have seeped for twenty minutes or so.
Devoted fans of black sesame treats will devour this one, and those less familiar to the flavor may be pleasantly surprised. I served these custards to one of each type of eater the other night, and they both scraped their ramekins clean.
Black Sesame Custards
(makes 4-5 servings)
1 pint whole milk
3 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup black sesame seeds
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
Heat a wide, heavy-bottomed pan over high heat and once hot, add the sesame seeds. Stir or shake pan constantly to promote an even toasting. Once fragrant with toastiness, about 1-2 minutes, immediately pour the seeds into a separate container. Lightly crush seeds with a mortar and pestle, or run them for a few pulses in a food processor.
Heat the milk in a saucepan enough to just bring to a boil, but reduce heat before letting it bubble.
Meanwhile, beat the yolks, sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl until fluffy and lighter in color. Add the toasted sesame seeds. While whisking, drizzle in a small ladle of the hot milk. Drizzle in a little more, still whisking, and a little more. Once about a cup of milk has been added, transfer the egg mixture into the saucepan with the rest of the milk and stir. Place over medium heat and slowly bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Let it bubble and thicken, while stirring, about 2 minutes. Then remove from heat and let cool. (Optionally, you can strain out the sesame seeds at this point if desired.)
Transfer to individual ramekins and cover with plastic wrap. Let chill completely overnight or at least six hours until firm and cold. Serve with optional black sesame seeds as garnish.
(for 4-5 servings)
1 pint (2 cups) whole milk (at $4/quart Ronnybrook): $2.00
3 egg yolks (at $4/dozen): $0.38
1/3 cup sugar: $0.40
1/2 cup black sesame seeds (from a big bag found at an Asian market): $1.00
1 tablespoon cornstarch: $0.20
Seven brownie points: In my opinion, desserts should be so intensely flavorful that you’ll want to eat them in moderation. This one’s a great burst of sweet sesame, and it comes with lots of sugar and cholesterol. At least you’re not eating the buttery pie crust as well? But sesame seeds, which you’ll be having a hearty portion of in this dessert, also offer heart-healthy fats and protein, thought to help reduce cholesterol, as well as lots of mineral such as copper and magnesium. (Think tahini only black, and heavily sweetened.)
Five maple leaves: The eggs and milk are easy to purchase responsibly, from a humane and local farm, but black sesame seeds? I’m not sure where to look on that one. In any case, it’s a natural, plant-based food that can be found in ethnic markets of many types, so hit up your local favorite spice warehouse (like Sahadi’s in Brooklyn) to find it and maybe learn more.