I keep coming back to write this blog post I started on Friday afternoon, then finding myself immobilised in front of the computer screen by the incomprehensibly-scaled disaster unfolding in Japan.
Although I’m fortunate not to know anyone living in the worst-affected areas in northern Japan, this past weekend was another one of jitters, of waiting to hear news of friends and family (luckily I haven’t had any bad news), of watching NHK* and flicking through news sites until my eyes were so sore they were about to pop out of my head. Sleeping poorly. Checking Twitter constantly on my phone (so rude! sorry everyone) for updates.**
I keep thinking of the destruction in Christchurch, and how I can’t even comprehend that, let alone what has happened to the Tohoku region. I keep remembering a family holiday in Iwate Prefecture, in particular a side trip we took to Miyako***, a sleepy little coastal town west of Morioka. The 2-hour winding train ride on this clackety 2-car train that took us through steep hills, high above a winding gorge that widened into a majestic, flat river flowing to sea. The hills blanketed in green, and then, later, the stunning limestone cliffs and rock formations rising out of the clear blue.
It’s funny because I can’t remember much about the town itself, and now it’s too late to go back and remember what it was. And other place-names that keep coming up in the news carry with them faint hues of sitting on trains with my brothers, and I can’t remember much else. I find myself mourning the irretrievability of faded memories. Insignificant, selfish really, in the face of everything else.
The good things have come in waves this weekend, too. First in the form of confirmation from friends and family in Japan (mostly in the Kanto/Tokyo region), that they were safe, even if they did have to walk several hours to reach their homes. Then in the form of a very delicious brunch**** I had at Monterey in Newtown. Later, in a couple hours spent following a pod of orcas around the Miramar Peninsula, one of the most joyous experiences of my life. And throughout the weekend, in this bowl of blackboy peaches (the name! but hey) that ripened one by one.
The first time I heard of these peaches was actually not until last year, when I stayed at a little backpacker’s hostel in Picton on the way to a couple days out in the Marlborough Sounds. Part of the appeal of this place was its gorgeous old-house feel, the other part the freshly baked bread and assorted homemade jams that were set out for breakfast each morning. I ended up buying a jar of blackboy peach jam to take home, enthralled by the somewhat-un-PC name and because, well, I was so excited to discover this as-yet-unheard of (by me) variety of fruit. I had no clue what they actually looked like, though, until Vanille blogged about them the other week, and I was dying to find some.
Then, on Wednesday, success. Spotted a couple of boxes at Moore Wilson’s (there were some at New World as well). Picked up a bagful. And on Thursday, this custard.
I wanted to keep things relatively simple to keep the spotlight (rightly) on the peach. What sprung to mind were the to-die-for cherry custard tarts my friend Rob made for a picnic earlier this summer: a sturdy pastry crust, a vanilla-bean-flecked custard filling, macerated cherries on top. But then I ate a big lunch and was a bit too full for pastry (or maybe just not in the mood), and I started thinking about this baked vanilla custard I’d had at Logan Brown some time ago. And then I saw the perfect recipe in one of my old Cuisine magazines.
The peaches need no explanation; they’re exquisite in themselves. Adding a bit of sugar and leaving them to macerate gives them a bit more sweetness and juice if yours are still pretty tart, as mine were at that stage, and the peachy syrup that forms is wonderful spooned over the custard.
This is one of those custards that makes you want to gasp with joy when you put a spoonful in your mouth, except you’d probably choke. It has the most beautiful wobbly texture, at once delicate and luxurious. When baked custard, whether it’s unadorned or served as crème brulee or flan, reaches that just-set stage (and no more) it’s one of my favourite things in the world.
Now that I think of it, this love of custard probably stems from that trip to Japan, when we spent hours on northward trains and we’d go to convenience stores beforehand to stock up with onigiri and other snacks for lunch, and the thing I ate probably more than anything else on that trip? Prepackaged purin (Japanese crème caramel). Highly processed? Probably. But so good, with that wobbly-creamy texture I adore. And because I was a kid and had the metabolism of a horse, I devoured them, train ride after train ride. There. My memories aren’t lost, after all. Though there’s so much else that is, I’m hopeful that Japan can recover some slices of normal life in the coming days.
*Japan’s public broadcast station, which people have been streaming live through various Ustream channels.
**Maki of the fantastic blog Just Hungry (Japanese food and recipes) has been tirelessly translating and tweeting Japanese news broadcasts for days now. Her Twitter username is @makiwi.
***I’m not posting the video of the tsunami hitting Miyako, but it’s out there, and as heart-crushing as the rest of it all.
****and a to-die-for peach iced tea!
BAKED VANILLA CUSTARD WITH PEACHES (serves 6):
(just barely adapted from Cuisine 127, July 2008. Recipe here)
You will need:
6 egg yolks
Thinly slice 2-3 peaches and set aside in a bowl. If your peaches are still quite firm and tart, you may want to macerate them by spooning over a couple tablespoons of sugar and giving it a stir before letting the bowl sit while you prepare the custard.
Meanwhile, split and scrape out seeds of 1 vanilla bean (alternatively you could use a teaspoon or 2 of vanilla paste but there’s something special about this dessert that deserves a vanilla bean, if you have one). Add the scraped-out bean and the seeds to a smallish saucepan with 600ml cream*, bring this to the boil, remove from heat and let it sit for about 20 minutes.
While you’re waiting for the vanilla to infuse the cream with the most vanilla-y vanilla-ness (oh boy, it’s late, I’m tired), preheat the oven to 160C and separate 6 eggs. Keep only the yolks** and whisk them gently with 2 tablespoons caster sugar. Slowly pour in the vanilla-infused cream while continuing to whisk gently. Pour into a jug through a sieve to catch any eggy bits that may have curdled/cooked (and the vanilla bean if you haven’t already plucked it out). Try not to drink too much of this mixture directly as you’ll need it if you plan on serving the finished product. Then pour into 6 individual 125-ml ramekins.***
Place the ramekins in a baking dish lined with a tea towel and fill halfway up the sides of the ramekins with boiling water. Carefully (do not spill boiling water on yourself!) transfer to oven. Bake for approximately 30 minutes; you’ll want them slightly jiggly. Remove the dish from the oven and then the ramekins from the dish; cool a little and top with peach slices. Add some of the syrup/juices from the bottom of the peach bowl if you like. It’s extra good!
*I used a combination of 450ml cream and made up the rest with milk because I failed to check how much cream I had before starting to make this. It still tasted fine.
**Don’t throw out the whites – you can use them for meringues, or angel food cake, or macarons, to fold into waffle batter, etc. They will keep in the freezer.
***As you can see, I used a variety of receptacles because most of my ramekins are greater in volume than 125ml.