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What Is Custard?
Custard is a heat-thickened mixture of eggs, milk, and (usually) sugar that can be made on the stovetop or in the oven. Custard is notoriously finicky: Heat causes egg proteins to coagulate, forming a thick solid mass, but because they’re diluted by milk and sugar, the custard must be heated to a higher temperature than egg alone would be.
Overheating, however, can cause smooth custard to turn grainy. Some recipes call for cornstarch or flour to prevent curdling, but this can also detract from the flavor of the custard. Western custards are typically made with cream or milk, but custards can be made with any mineral-rich liquid, such as bonito, chicken stock, coconut milk, or vegetable broth.
What Is the History of Custard?
Although ancient Romans recognized eggs’ ability to coagulate, custards, as we know them today, probably weren’t developed until the Middle Ages, emerging both in Asia and Europe. In Medieval Europe, custards were baked: either in cooling bread ovens, small side ovens, or chafing dishes set over coals. Custard powder, invented by Alfred Bird during the nineteenth century as a way to make custard for his wife who was allergic to eggs, contains cornflour and sugar, to which hot milk is added.
What Are the Characteristics of Custard?
Custards can be stiff or runny and come in many different flavors, but they’re always rich due to the high amount of eggs needed to thicken the custard. Recipes calling for more whole eggs (or whites) will yield a firmer custard, whereas more yolks will yield a creamier custard. Baked custard is cooked when it sticks mostly to itself: you can tell by tapping the dish, contents will move slowly. This will indicate that the proteins have coagulated. For custard cooked on the stovetop, you’ll see the custard coat the back of the spoon.
3 Varieties of Custard
There are three main varieties of custard: baked custard, stirred custard, and steamed custard. The first two are both popular in Western cuisine. Baked custard is typically firmer and made with whole eggs, while stirred custards can be much runnier and often only contain the yolks. Steamed custards, which are more common in Asia, tend to be made with broth or plant-based milk rather than dairy.
- Baked custards: These include custards baked in a pie or tart shell and custards cooked in a baking dish set in a bain-marie (water bath), which can be served in the dish itself, or unmolded.
- Stirred custards: These include custards made on the stovetop, such as crème Anglais, a pourable custard with the consistency of heavy cream at room temperature, and crème pâtissière, which is thickened with flour or cornstarch and holds its shape at room temperature.
- Steamed custards: These include Japanese chawanmushi, a savory custard made with dashi and flavored with soy sauce and mirin that literally means “steamed cup.” The custard mixture is strained into a teacup, topped with meat and vegetables, then set in a lidded pot with about an inch of water. Korean gyeran-jjim and Chinese steamed eggs are made in a similar way. Steamed Thai custards use a base of coconut milk.
How to Make Custard
- Combine 2 cups milk with ½ cup sugar in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring the milk and sugar mixture to temperature, slowly stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved in the milk. Be sure to keep the milk moving.
- Meanwhile, beat two eggs in a medium-size bowl.
- Temper your eggs by slowly ladling a small amount of the milk mixture into your eggs while stirring. Keep ladling small amounts until the eggs have warmed to a similar temperature as the milk (about 4 ladlefuls).
- Slowly pour the egg and milk mixture back into the saucepot while stirring everything together. Continue stirring until the egg and milk mixture becomes viscous and can coat the back of a wooden spoon.
- Strain the custard through a chinois into a bowl set in an ice bath (or place the bowl in the refrigerator). Allow to chill for at least one hour until set.
9 Ways to Prepare Custard
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Western-style custards can be prepared on the stovetop or in an uncovered baking dish in a bain-marie (water bath) in the oven. Many recipes for stirred custards call for first mixing the eggs and sugar, then adding hot cream or milk to the egg-sugar mixture. This helps bring the custard up to temperature more quickly without risking curdling. Starch-enhanced custards can be brought to a full boil since the starch provides a buffer around the egg proteins, while those made without starch need to be kept at a lower temperature since they’ll curdle if boiled (this can be fixed by straining). Some popular dishes featuring custards include:
- Quiche is a savory baked custard tart with cheese, meat, and vegetables.
- Crème caramel (aka flan) is a baked sweet custard that’s flipped to reveal a caramelized-sugar bottom.
- Éclairs, fruit tarts, donuts, and other pastries are often filled with crème pâtissière (pastry cream).
- British trifle is made from layers of cake, fruit, and stirred custard.
- Ice cream is usually made with a custard base.
- Bavarian cream is custard thickened with gelatin.
- Crème brûlée literally means “burned cream” and is a baked custard topped with crispy caramelized sugar. (Crème brûlée was invented in the seventeenth century as a stirred custard; It wasn’t until the twentieth century that crème brûlée began to be more commonly baked.)
- Chinese egg tarts and their Portuguese cousins, pastéis de nata, are made with custard.
- Steamed Thai pumpkin custard is a steamed custard made with a base of coconut milk and cooked inside a pumpkin.
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