Thickening a mixture of milk and eggs on low heat has been an age-old culinary technique since the ancient Roman times. This method has been a huge part of the European cuisine and each region has its own variations. The blend of these two simple ingredients with the addition of simple flavor enhancer like cinnamon or vanilla has given rise to the most worldwide popular dessert called custard; a smooth and silky sweet delight that is known as latiya in Guam!
Technically, custard refers to a milk-based dish that is thickened using only eggs. But over time, custard has become an umbrella term for a variety of dairy based sweet delicacies that are thickened using eggs or flour or even other thickening agents like custard powder.
Custard is derived from the French medieval word croustade, which means uncooked pastry or tart cover, which is then filled with milk and egg mixture. Custards can be broadly classified into two categories: cream custard and set custard. The cream custard variety similar to the present day version appeared first in history around the 16th century. But the latter variety gained more popularity.
The set custard gets its name due to its texture. Since it’s baked and as there is no vigorous stirring involved during the preparation, the custard is very well set and holds its shape. Crème brulée, flan, crème caramel are the most popular varieties under this group.
The cream custard is commonly known as stirred or soft custard. They are cooked on low heat on stovetop or using a double boiler method to achieve a smooth and fine texture. As the name suggests, they are soft and fluid in consistency. Hence they are generally used as a sauce or a filling in tarts and pies. The most common way to use this custard sauce is pouring it on top of a sponge cake or over fruits, cakes or biscuits. It can be served hot or cold.
The Italian dessert zabaglione is an egg-based custard, which is flavored with sweet wine and is served over a slice of ladyfingers or a plain cake. Bavarian cream, cream pies, fruit curds are few of the varieties that come under the soft custard category. But the most popular variety is the French crème anglaise or the French crème pâtissière that is used as a filling in many recipes.
One such sweet delicacy, a cream custard variety, which is popular throughout the Spanish speaking countries, is natiya. Today’s recipe is the classical Chamorro recipe from Guam.
Natiya has its roots in Spanish cuisine. The Spaniards introduced it to the local people during the colonization of Guam in the 17th or 18th century. Natilla is a Spanish term for custard and it is a diminutive of nata, which means cream in Spanish.
In Guam, this dessert is also known as latiya. In the past, Chamorros (the indigenous people of the Mariana islands) changed the letter N to L in the Spanish words. Hence it is common to call this by both names.
Latiya is a traditional and comfort food for the people of Guam. It is a popular dessert prepared with vanilla pastry cream sprinkled with cinnamon and a sponge cake base. It is mainly served during Christmas, Rosemary or any special occasions. There is a slight difference between the Spanish and Guam recipes. While the Spaniards serve the custard as such in bowls, the island people set the custard on top of sponge cakes and then serve it. It isn’t latiya unless it uses sponge cake as the base.
The traditional recipe has evolved quite a bit over the years. Milk is replaced by evaporated milk and condensed milk to quicken up the process. Ready-made sponge cakes are also used in the recipe for convenience and nowadays pre-made powder packets are also available in supermarkets.
Variations of natiya
Variations of the dessert are found throughout the Latin American countries. They are all very similar to the Spanish version.
Natilla has a special place in the hearts of Colombians. It is a traditional Christmas dessert that is served along with bunuelos and manjar blanco. One of the traditions practiced during Christmas is to make natilla in a campfire either at home or on the streets. Natilla in Colombia is made with milk, panela (cane sugar), and flour. Traditional recipes also included grated coconut and raisins as toppings.
In Peru, natilla is made with milk and chancaca, a sauce made from unrefined sugar. It is boiled until the sugar is caramelized to give a rich brown color similar to dulce de leche.
It is interesting to note that custard can also be savory. Savory quiches are also a variety of custard. Natilla in Costa Rica refers to a condiment that is very similar to the American sour cream.
In Cuba and Puerto Rico, it is served as a cold dessert during Christmas. Puerto Ricans have a less sweetened version of natilla with honey and fruits for breakfast.
This humble dessert is very popular among the island people and the tourists alike. It is quite easy to prepare and is an absolute crowd pleaser in any gathering!
- 4 large eggs
- 1¾ cup flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 1 pinch salt
- ½ cup butter
- 3 cups evaporated milk
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups coconut milk
- ½ cup caster sugar
- 12 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- Stand mixer
- Cake mold (12x8 inches)
- Preheat a convection oven to 350 F (or 380 F for a conventional oven).
- Baking parchment paper a 12x8 inch (3-inch high) rectangular cake mold.
Mix the baking powder and the flour and sift them in a bowl.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, break the eggs.
Add the sugar, the flour and baking powder mixture and the butter. Mix everything with the flat beater until obtaining a homogeneous texture. Do not beat for too long.
- Pour the mixture into the mold.
- Tap the mold firmly against the worktop to smooth out and get rid of the air bubbles.
- Using a spatula, gently smooth out the top.
- Place the mold on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes.
- Do not open the oven door for the first 20 minutes for baking.
- The sponge cake is ready when it is golden and has risen well.
- Remove the sponge cake from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes in the mold.
- Unmold carefully on a rack and let cool completely.
- Cut the cake into 2-inch squares and place them in a baking dish.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the milk.
- Whisk well and add the water. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium.
- In a large bowl, pour the coconut milk and cornstarch. Whisk well and make sure there are no lumps.
- Add the coconut milk and cornstarch mixture to the milk mixture and stir constantly.
- While stirring, add the sugar gradually.
- Boil for 5 minutes, stirring constantly until thickened.
- Pour the cream on the sponge cake.
- Place the latiya in the refrigerator for about 8 hours.
- Before serving, sprinkle enough cinnamon to decorate and cover the latiya.