What is Custard and Where is It From?
What is Custard Made of? A Simple Recipe for the Ultimate Comfort Food.
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Cappy Tosetti
Sometimes, all it takes is a simple bowl of goodness like egg custard to wash away the worries and stresses in life. Something that provides a feeling of well-being and nostalgia — that warm and fuzzy emotion associated with fond memories from long ago. But what is custard?
What is custard made of? The magic is in the simplicity of the ingredients: milk, eggs, sugar, a pinch of salt, a dash of vanilla extract, and a sprinkle of nutmeg. The end result is creamy, silky, and delicious.
There are many variations of the basic recipe — some call for milk, while others use cream or a combination of the two. Then there’s the debate about eggs, the key ingredient in preparing custard. Some prefer using whole eggs, while others stand strong on whisking just the yolks into the mixture.
Eggs are the main thickener in traditional custard recipes, and the yolks give it a buttery yellow color and a smooth, creamy consistency. Both the yolks and whites contain proteins, which change from liquid to solid, called coagulation, when cooked or baked. This is what gives custard its distinctive look and texture.
Often, the question arises about the difference between custard, mousse, and pudding. Although similar in appearance, each dessert is unique. In a nutshell, custard is made by cooking milk and sugar and adding eggs to thicken the mixture. Mousse relies on egg whites which are whipped to a froth and then folded and cooked with other ingredients that turn it into a light and airy delicacy. Pudding is a sweetened milk mixture thickened with either cornstarch or flour while stirred on the stove.
Basic Egg Custard Recipe
Like most things in life, there are many variations of this simple recipe found in cookbooks and online. Ideally, watching someone with experience making egg custard is the best way to learn. It takes a bit of finesse in the kitchen perfecting the right consistency and texture. The most common error results in a custard that’s watery and won’t set up.
- 2 cups whole milk or cream
- 2 to 4 eggs
- ½ cup sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Dash of vanilla
- Pinch of nutmeg
Traditionally, egg custard is baked in the oven. Heat the milk in a small saucepan on the stovetop until very hot — not boiling. Meanwhile, mix the eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a medium bowl until blended, and slowly stir in the hot milk mixture.
Place lightly greased six-ounce custard cups (ramekins) in a baking pan without touching each other or the sides of the pan. Pour the mixture into the dishes, sprinkling each with a bit of nutmeg if desired. One can also double the recipe, pouring the mixture into a 9×13 casserole dish.
This is the bain-marie method, another name for a hot water bath. It’s used for cooking delicate foods, creating an even heat source around each dish. Place the pan on the middle rack of a preheated oven (350 degrees), and pour very hot water into the pan within ½ inch of the top of the custard cups. If preparing custard in a casserole dish, use the same water bath process by placing it in a large roasting pan. Bake until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean, usually 25 to 30 minutes (40 to 45 minutes for a larger container). It’s ready when the mixture is firm and wobbles. Remove the dishes from the water bath immediately, letting them cool on a wire rack for five to 10 minutes. Serve warm or chilled.
Egg custard can also be prepared on the stovetop using a double boiler. Combine the ingredients and cook over hot water (not boiling), stirring constantly. As soon as the custard coats a metal spoon (about 10 minutes) remove from the heat. Place the pan in a large bowl of cold water and continue to stir the mixture a minute or two while it cools.
Some enjoy custard with fresh fruit and a dollop of whipped cream, while others relish it baked with a decadent layer of caramel sauce on top — better known as flan. Whether it’s served simply or dressed up elegantly, egg custard is a winner. It’s the perfect comfort food!
A Slice of History
Who actually created such a delicate dessert? Food historians have many opinions, but most agree custard was initially served by ancient Romans who were the first to recognize the binding properties of eggs. They simmered milk, eggs, and honey in clay pots, topping it off with a dash of ground pepper. Since that first batch stirred over an open fire, people around the world have enjoyed the taste sensation.
The pages of culinary history gained notoriety during the 16th century in Portugal because of one specific need — egg whites. At that time, Catholic nuns, friars, and monks living in convents and monasteries used large amounts of the clear liquid to starch their religious habits and to clarify red wine. This resulted in an overabundance of egg yolks. It was a blessing in disguise, as many helped the poor by selling cakes, cookies, and other sweets. It was an opportunity to try a new recipe.
One tasty treat, pastėis de nata (pastries of cream), was invented by Carmelite nuns in the tiny town of Tentúgal, between Lisbon and Porto. These tarts are made with a luscious custard center nestled in layers of a delicate, flaky crust and topped with powdered sugar that blisters from the high heat of the oven. Today, these tarts continue to reign as the country’s signature sweet.
Wherever one travels, there’s surely a variation of egg custard on the menu. Who can resist a taste of crème brûlée with its hardened caramelized sugar topping? The recipe first appeared in 1691 in the French cookbook, Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois by Francois Massialot, a chef at the Palace of Versailles.
In Italy, there’s the famous shell-shaped pastry called sfogliatelle, nicknamed “lobster tails” in English. Across the Adriatic Sea in Greece, there’s galaktoboureko, an egg custard pie drenched in a scented syrup and melted butter under a layer of crispy golden phyllo dough. China has its own version of a delicious egg tart, usually served at dim sum restaurants and afternoon tea. Spanish-speaking countries enjoy serving up natillas de leche, a creamy delicacy lightly flavored with lemon and cinnamon.
One doesn’t have to travel far for some creamy custard; eggs and milk are but a step away in the kitchen, just waiting to bring a bit of comfort to an ordinary day. Enjoy the moment!
What is custard made of, when you made it in your kitchen?
Originally published in the October/November 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.