It's time to luxuriate in the comfort food season; Indulgence: Good old Baltimore home cooking now qualifies as a wondrous cuisine of its own.


WE'RE SQUARELY in the middle of Baltimore comfort food season, and I love it.

The other Monday I trotted off to the Woman's Industrial Exchange for chicken pot pie. A few days later I lunched on the same dish at Jr., a restaurant in Bolton Hill. And is any Baltimore winter complete without a trip to Marconi's on Saratoga Street for the chocolate sauce?

In the past few weeks I've dined upon shepherd's pie, meat loaf, sour beef and dumplings, fresh ham, lamb chops, creamed cauliflower, mashed potatoes (skip the garlic, thank you) and beef stew.

Come to think of it, just about all the foods once revered as normal Baltimore cooking fall under the heading of comfort food.

(I should declare here and now that I am something of an unnatural Baltimorean. I don't eat fish or crab -- not even my grandmother's oyster pot pie.)

I'm delighted that the food magazines at the supermarket checkout counter are now in favor of this style of cooking. I have nothing against all the food trends that have swept the country. It's just that I like a bowl of noodle soup or scrapple with homemade ketchup instead of the hundredth serving of pizza, pita bread, cilantro in everything, wrap sandwich or chicken Caesar salad. Most of the newish foods aren't very good. But they have earned a good name and restaurateurs like to feature what will sell.

I confess: I do go through the motions of healthy eating. Each Saturday morning I walk to the Waverly Farmer's Market and buy a bag of mixed green (and purple) stuff from the Carroll County salad lady. It makes me feel good.

Do I actually consume all that leafy, frilly stuff over the week? Not always.

There are times in the life of a Baltimorean when you crave what you can't get -- the coffee ice cream from Horn & Horn's on Baltimore Street; a Wellesley fudge cake from Hutzler's Bake Shop; or the the special sauce on the Harley Original from Harley's sandwich shops.

A few nights ago I was feeling especially food deprived -- which is different from hunger -- and dug out some of my great Aunt Cora's cookbooks, the ones with all the handwritten recipes tucked in among the printed directions.

I was in search of boiled custard -- a rare dessert these days and, to my palate, one of the greatest of all comfort dishes. Alas, comfort food chefs today concentrate too much upon bread pudding, a perfectly acceptable dessert, but way overproduced.

Boiled custard recommends itself because it is inexpensive to make (always a plus to frugal Baltimoreans) and about the only thing precious it requires is labor; otherwise it's just milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla and cornstarch. Cornstarch, by the way, is one of those currently unfashionable ingredients that, when used by the right cook, can turn a plain dish into bliss.

I have never seen boiled custard -- as opposed to baked custard or its somewhat exotic (and therefore available) cousin, flan -- on a restaurant menu. My ancient cookbook called for six tablespoons of cornstarch and whole milk, not skim. I stirred and stirred, then followed the directions and put the lid on the double boiler and let it cook for ten minutes. To pass the time, I slipped into the cellar and ran the electric trains for the interval.

At the very end, I poured in a large dose of pure vanilla. The custard set up thick and sweet, the perfect antidote to a cold and damp February night. Or a cold February morning, when I finished off the last bowl of it.

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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