Mhalbi custard

31 October 2012

Mhalbi is a milk pudding, served across North Africa and the Middle East under various names. I had a lovely mhalbi some time ago at Ima, flavoured with something floral and topped with a quince and red wine reduction. I decided to make something similar myself, so I had a look at some recipes.

It seems that mhalbi is usually flavoured with rose, orange blossom or some other flower, and is often topped with nuts, dried fruit, or both. It’s typically thickened with corn or rice flour. Where, I wanted to know, are the eggs? Some recipes do indeed seem to contain eggs, but relatively few compared with a traditional milk custard. Personally, I find flour-thickened puddings disappointing compared with the richer, creamier body of a good egg custard. I was also trying to come up with some ideas for desserts that aren’t too unhealthy, and milk custard is pretty virtuous in my book! The other great thing about this dessert is that it’s infinitely adaptable: there’s no need to just stick to flowers, nuts and dried fruit, although these are great together. Why not try some liqueur, vanilla, or spices? And, as they do at Ima, why not soak your fruit in alcohol to make it more exciting?

I based my custard on a Stephanie Alexander recipe, though I adapted it to suit this particular dessert. I have tried and thoroughly enjoyed several “traditional” flavours, listed below. Alternatively, you can make a vanilla custard by adding some vanilla paste, or by infusing the milk with a bean (essence doesn’t work so well). Top with grated chocolate and crushed hazelnuts.

I would also like to try rosewater, pistachio and saffron. Niki Segnit writes of an ice cream shop in Los Angeles which serves a rosewater, saffron and pistachio ice cream. If it works for ice cream, it should work for custard too!

  • Rosewater and pistachio custard

    Rosewater (¼–½ tsp per serving, to taste) and crushed toasted pistachios (about 10 g per serving).

    Orange blossom, cardamom and almond custard
    Orange blossom water (¼–½ tsp per serving), cardamom (the crushed contents of one pod), and crushed toasted almonds.

    Orange blossom, apricot and pine nut custard
    Orange blossom water (¼–½ tsp per serving), Cointreau-soaked dried apricots (one or more per serving), and toasted whole pine nuts.

  • For six custards:
    2 cups milk
    5 egg yolks
    ½ cup of castor sugar
    1 tbsp cornflour

  • Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour until they’re thick and mousse-like.
  • Meanwhile, heat the milk in a thick-bottomed pot over a low heat until you can see a little steam come off the top. If you’re flavouring the custard with anything that should be infused (e.g. a vanilla bean, saffron, cinnamon sticks), put these in your milk before you start heating it.
  • When the milk is hot, pour it over the egg, whisking constantly. Rinse out the pot, pour the mixture back in and put it back on the heat.
  • Cook the mixture over a gentle heat, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes, until it has thickened and coats the back of a spoon.
  • Once cooked, cool the custard down by plunging the pot into a sink filled with iced water, and stir for a couple of minutes. If you’re adding floral water or liqueur to flavour it, you can add it now, or else stir it in before you serve.
  • Put the custard into a fresh bowl if your pot is still a bit hot, and put it in the fridge, pressing some cling film over the surface to make sure it doesn’t develop a skin. It should take an hour or two to cool completely.
  • When it’s ready, spoon into nice serving vessels (nice shot glasses, espresso cups or ramekins) and sprinkle over your chosen toppings.