Say what you like about me, I pack a good lunch. Is this reason enough to stake out a piece of cyber ground, to run yet another collection of words up the blogpole? I don’t know. But I’m going with it. I have to start somewhere, and true to form I am picking the middle, my reach exceeding my grasp a bit. Sometimes that seems to be the only way to get my own attention.
Lunch is never just lunch. Lunch is packed, you might say.
Lunch is a love letter from home to my kiddos at large in the land, a little radio blip from the mothership. Lunch is good fuel for their bodies, my bully pulpit for nutritional preaching to a captive audience (there’s nothing to eat at school besides what I send with them). Okay, sometimes lunch is a holy-smokes-is-it-7:25-already-slapdash-overhead-lob-of-strange-bedfellows-that-may-or-may-not-constitute-a-complete-meal. But sometimes I rise above.
This is one of my main instruments of ascent:
I have an itchy, nearly insurmountable bias against single-serving convenience foods, even though I understand their irresistible appeal to both the lunchbox packer and the consumer. To the packer: here is this thing, already sized and sealed! A mere flick of the wrist and into the box it goes! Pack lunch without even opening your eyes! To the consumer–well, there is something just nicer about a thing contained in itself, not portioned out from a larger pot and glopped into a container. In the Cupcake vs. Slice of Cake smackdown, cupcake always wins.
Enter the lowly Mason jar, my helpmeet and companion.
Baked custard is a lunchbox hero: nutrient-dense, extremely delicious, and quick to eat. Baked in a heat-tolerant jar like our pal Mason, it is ready for the bleariest, most decaffeinated parent to fling into a backpack.
For a basic go-to recipe, Molly Katzen’s from the Moosewood Cookbook can’t be beat.
2.5 cups milk (from a cow, or otherwise)
1/3 cup maple syrup
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Set six wide-mouth half-pint mason jars into a large baking pan, and put a kettle of water on to boil.
Using a rotary beater, stick-blender, your regular blender or just a whisk, VERY thoroughly combine these ingredients. Divide the batter among the custard cups, set the pan on the oven rack, and then pour the hot water from the kettle into the pan until the pan is about half full. Gently slide the oven rack in to minimize sloshing, and bake about 40 minutes, until the centers are just set when you jiggle them. Check not at all for the first half hour, and often for the next 8-10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and using good tongs, take the jars out of the water and cool them on a rack. They will continue to cook as they cool.
If you are wondering why I say to fill the pan with water after you already have it in the oven, or why I emphasize the gentle sliding of the oven rack, or why I recommend vigilance at the end of the cooking time or the use of good, grippy tongs, you can review the tape of my life and see the messes I got into before making a note of these helpful tips for myself. One of my favorite things to say: If you can’t set a good example, at least you can serve as a horrible warning. Here at A Raisin & A Porpoise, that is just one of our gifts to you.
OK! That was easy. Once they are cool, screw on the metal lids that came with the jars, or the handy storage lids you purchased at the same time on the same shelf in the same store, chill overnight, and Bob is certainly your uncle come lunch-packing time.
Now for some extra fun. Kicking it up a notch, you might say.
First of all, you get a much smoother and more delicious result if you strain the batter through a fine sieve, which adds fifteen seconds to the total investment of time and removes any rubbery egg nubbins that may lurk in there, but I knew if I said it up there you might say “a sieve?! I am not doing anything with a sieve! You said this was simple!” Make it without straining it and see if you like it. Using a blender makes straining less necessary. Another one of the sayings I will someday stitch into a sampler: If you like the way it turned out, then you did it right.
Second of all, and much more fun: before you mix the custard batter, bring about half of the milk to a simmer in a small pot and then turn off the heat. Into this hot milk, throw either:
A handful of fresh mint
A chai teabag (or, for that matter, any other teabag whose flavor amuses you).
Cover and let steep for a few minutes, then remove the flavoring agent and proceed with the recipe, and you will see your approval ratings soar. This turns out to be WAY tastier than adding mint extract or powdered spices. I don’t know why.