Custard is a creamy dairy (milk or cream) and egg yolk concotion with varying degrees of thickness, depending on the amount of egg yolks and cooking time. While commonly thought of as a dessert, custard can also serve as the base for a savory preparation. Custards can stand alone or be part of a larger recipe like French toast. The delicate combinations can also be baked, cooked stovetop, or both, depending on the type and use of the mixture.
Types of Custard
These thick, creamy desserts have a long and varied history. In the Middle Ages, the concoctions were sweet or savory (filled with cheese, meats, and spices). There is some version in just about every type of ethnic cooking, with Spain's flan one of the most legendary and popular around the world. In fact, today's quiche filling is really just one of many savory custard recipes, and many sweet varieties form the fillings for custard pies. Custard also often forms the base for ice cream and frozen custards.
While all custards combine milk and egg yolks, there are a number of custard preparations, including:
- Crème anglaise (English cream): A thin custard sauce
- Crème caramel (flan): A custard dessert with soft caramel
- Crème brûlée: A custard dessert with hard caramel
- Crème pâtissière (pastry cream): Used to fill éclairs and other pastries
- Sabayon (also known as zabaglione or zabaione): An Italian soft custard with sweet wine, such as Marsala
How Custard Differs from Pudding
Many people mistake custard for pudding. There are some differences, however.
- Custards traditionally use egg yolks as a thickener (and occasionally gelatin, as well), while puddings typically use corn starch.
- Custards contain eggs, puddings do not.
- Custards generally require more gentle cooking than puddings, often over a double boiler on the stove or baked in a water bath.
- Custards require tempering to avoid cooking the eggs. Puddings do not.
- Sweet custards are generally flavored with vanilla, while puddings may have other flavors like chocolate or butterscotch.
Tips for Working with Custards
Custard can be a bit persnickety if you are incautious or in a hurry. Consider these tips for making the perfect, silken custard.
- Custards can curdle if you're not careful, which is why you should cook them slowly in a double boiler or in a water bath in the oven.
- When adding egg yolks to hot milk or cream, temper them first by adding a few tablespoons of the warm liquid a little at a time to the yolks and stirring carefully. This method won't curdle the egg, making your custard smooth and silky.
- You should always refrigerate your custard recipe after you cook it.
- Don't cook over too high a heat. It can scorch the milk and make the eggs separate. Stir constantly as you cook on the stovetop.