When I married for the first time it was a few months before my nineteenth birthday. Shortly after I caught a flight to West Africa, to join my expatriate banker husband. My small circle of friends were, on the whole, envious. On the face of it there was a great deal to be envious about. In London I shared a hostel room with two other girls; in Ghana I moved into a fully furnished, light and airy apartment, with a house boy to do all the cleaning, cooking and washing. I exchanged a monotonous job for the excitement of travel, and different countries to explore and, although I left good friends behind, there was a ready-made circle of expatriates to fit into. Life, I thought, was going to be one long round of sun, sand, and cocktail parties.
Of course, only some of that was true. There was the excitement of travel, but mixed with the packing up and saying goodbye to those that had become instant friends every 18 months or so wasn’t easy. As a teenager, I also had to learn to manage a household with ‘servants’, as well as entertain colleagues and clients who were at least a decade older than me. If I at all complained about this glamorous life style to my friends back home, they reacted in the same way as the guests in the dinner party scene from ‘Notting Hill’ when Julia Roberts told her sob story to win the brownie prize. “No, no, you don’t fool anyone’. Still the restrictions and duties demanded of an expatriate life style were a big learning curve for an unsophisticated nineteen year old.
To start with, I could barely cook. A roasted breast of lamb was the only dish I knew how to prepare (see ‘My first joint’ in Chapter One). I don’t remember our first ‘houseboy’ in the flats in Tema. My husband, born and brought up in Kenya, was an old hand to this way of life. The houseboy was given a budget, bought the food from the local markets and supplied us with supper every evening, and an occasional lunch if my husband was able to come home. At first I found it not only strange that I should share the flat with a ‘servant’ despite the fact that I was delighted someone else was doing the cleaning and washing in the fierce heat, but that, that someone would also chose what I would eat. Once I had realised that as I couldn’t drive, that I was going on my own every day until the evening, I set about organising my own lunch. The kitchen never felt like mine, so I used to wait until the boy was occupied somewhere else and sneak into the kitchen to scrounge a minimal portion of salad or fruit. Fortunately our stay in Tema wasn’t that long, and we moved to Accra and to a bigger block of flats filled with the other Bank staff. And yes I confess to soon being given a Ghanain driving licence having passed the theory test, but apart from my husband, very little testing was taken to see whether I could operationally drive or not.
To be honest, I can’t really remember what we ate in those early days, but I one thing I do remember was the desserts. At the behest I believe of my husband, nine times out of ten it was tinned fruit, served with evaporated milk. Our store cupboard was full of tins, peaches, apricots, guava and mango – ridiculous really when many of them were grown locally and could have been bought fresh in the markets. This was the area I decided I could try to improve on, whilst taking into account that, my husband, unlike me, didn’t possess a sweet tooth.
My grandmother, who wrote to me every week, soon realised my predicament and started to enclose recipes from Woman’s Own tucked into flimsy blue aerogrammes. In one of them was a recipe for caramel custard. I don’t know why I chose this first of all, as fresh dairy products were virtually impossible to buy in Ghana. Shops stocked only UHT, evaporated and condensed milk. Therefore, the recipe I co-opted had to be from these ingredients. It took me a while to get the mix right, but it then became a staple of our dinner parties. As we continued to travel across the world from posting to posting, my cooking vocabulary expanded and crème caramel as it is now known, was left behind with other 70s dinner party specialities such as prawn cocktail and beef wellington.
Although the taste of UHT milk has greatly improved over the last two decades, I’ve now replaced it with fresh, full fat milk, but to get a richer, creamier result I have still included evaporated and condensed milk. This dish may take a couple of attempts to perfect. The oven temperature is critical, to ensure that the custard doesn’t boil and set full of air bubbles, but the rich creaminess of this retro dessert is worth that extra effort.
Serves eight. I recommend making the day before, but preparation time approx. 1.5hrs.
For the caramel
40gms muscovado sugar
80gms caster sugar
For the custard
250ml full fat milk
125ml condensed milk
125ml evaporated milk
1tsp vanilla extract
Butter lightly eight dariole moulds – a wonderful word borrowed from the French – but any ovenproof ramekins/bowls are fine.
Measure the milks into a jug and beat, mixing thoroughly. Pour into a small pan and add vanilla extract, swirl. Bring to a simmer, take off the heat and cover.
The combination of sugars, make this quite a heavy, dark caramel, which contrasts well with the blander custard. Put the sugars into a heavy bottomed saucepan, this is important as you don’t want the sugar to burn. Pour in just enough water to just cover. Bring to a simmer over a low heat, then cook until thickened, (approx. 15minutes). When the syrup is thick enough to cover the back of a wooden spoon, check if it’s done, by putting a blob of the syrup in a saucer of cold water. If it can form a loose lump then it’s ready. Divide between the moulds and swirl to cover the bases. Set aside for at least 15 mins.
Whisk the eggs together in a large bowl. It is better to use a hand whisk here as you do not want to create too many bubbles. Remove any skin that has formed on the top of the milk. Then slowly add it to the bowl, stirring with a wooden spoon all the time. Leave to settle whilst caramel is setting.
Heat the oven to 150C/300F.
Cut a piece of greaseproof paper to the size of the baking tin you are going to bake the ramekins in.
Sieve the milk and egg mixture into a jug. Skim any foam from the top before pouring into the ramekins and placing them in the baking tin. Pour boiling water into the tin to two-thirds of the way up the ramekins. Place in the oven and cover with the greaseproof paper. As I have a fan oven, I weigh this down with an empty baking tin to prevent it blowing away. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the greaseproof paper and its weight and bake uncovered for another 30 minutes. The custard should be just set but a bit wobbly in the middle. Remove the ramekins from the tin and leave to cool. I do recommend leaving them in fridge overnight to allow the custard to meld with the caramel, but it isn’t essential.
To serve, microwave the custard for no more than eight seconds, this will melt the gloopy caramel, slide a knife around the edge of the custard to loosen it, then up end it onto a plate. If there is caramel still in the bottom of the mould, don’t hesitate to spoon it over. I like to serve with a splash or two of single cream and a handful of semi-frozen blackberries if in season.