Curiously, there is no directly French translation for 'custard.' Indeed, the French throw up their hands altogether and describe, rather than translate, the term as crème anglaise. That certainly hasn't stopped them from producing several kinds of excellent custard. But they would probably be surprised to learn that their beloved sauce hollandaise is just as much a custard as is pastry cream. Not to mention crème brulée!
A custard is a concoction of 'set' eggs. That's to say that eggs, beaten and usually in combination with other ingredients, are heated gently until they begin to thicken and solidify. Usually. The true test of a custard is that it can be overcooked into something inedible. Scrambled eggs, for example. The omelette is perhaps the most extreme form of custard, in the sense that no egg dish is firmer than an omelette. A fried egg may or may not be a custard, depending upon your view of a completely solid egg white; the yolk ought certainly to be custardy. A hard-boiled egg is certainly not a custard. By 'boiled' eggs we mean eggs that have been immersed in boiling water for a time, whether in their shells (soft- and hard-boiled eggs), or cracked open (poached eggs). But in no case does the egg itself actually boil. Truly boiled eggs curdle: the yolks break down into hard granules swimming in a runny liquid. Starch seems to prevent this development, which is why eggs can be added to boiled cornstarch pudding. In a cornstarch pudding - not a true custards - eggs are an embellishment to a pudding that would set quite well without them. In a true custard, eggs themselves are the only thickener.
If you're worried about curdling eggs, make the cornstarch pudding a few times. It always comes out just right, it comes in several flavors, and the way it cooks is useful to have in one's mind when one sets out to make true custards. Here is a simple custard, good for any weeknight's dinner, that comes, I think, from The Back of the Box Cookbook - a book that I no longer possess.
1. In a heavy three-quart saucepan, combine 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 1 egg. Gradually add 3 cups whole milk, stirring until roughly smooth.
2. Put the saucepan over medium heat. Stir slowly but constantly until the pudding reaches the boil, and boil it for one minute. The pudding will be distressingly lumpy, but don't worry.
3. Whisk in 2 tablespoons butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Keep whisking! Watch the pudding smooth out and turn positively silken.
4. Pour the pudding into a serving bowl or into individual dishes. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for a few hours; in cold weather, you can set the pudding outdoors in protected spot. For a truly American finishing touch, place a maraschino cherry - wash it off first to eliminate stray juices - in the center of the serving bowl.
Break one ounce unsweetened chocolate into small pieces, and stir it into the saucepan along with the milk in Step 1 above. Don't worry how small the pieces are. For most of the stirring time, the bits of chocolate will swirl in the milk. Just before the pudding begins to boil, however, they'll melt, and the pudding will turn a uniform brown. By all means, experiment with the chocolate by using bittersweet in greater quantities. This recipe is simply a sound beginning.
When I was a boy. I used to beg my mother to make Minute Tapioca pudding. She thought it was a big deal, probably because of the beaten egg white. Like Boiled Cornstarch Pudding, tapioca is not a custard: it's the starchy tapioca that provides for the the thickening. Some health-conscious recipes dispense with the (unnecessary but lovely) yolk altogether.
I would learn as an adult that tapioca is really just a supreme base for vanilla flavor. It goes without saying, by the way, that these recipes call for real vanilla extract, not some synthetic. Even if it has of late got rather costly, there's no good reason to cut this corner.
I almost forgot. There are those who like pearl tapioca - the kind that goes into today's faddish 'bubble teas.' I am not one of them.
1. In a heavy saucepan, combine 3 tablespoons Minute Tapioca, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 2 cups milk, and one egg yolk. (You'll need the white in a minute. For separating eggs, see my Soufflé page.) Let the mixture stand for five minutes.
2. Beat the egg white until foamy, gradually beating in two tablespoons sugar, until the whites hold firm peaks.
3. Over medium heat, bring the tapioca mixture to a full boil, stirring constantly.
4. Off heat, fold the tapioca mixture gently into the egg white, until just blended. Stir in 3/4 teaspoon vanilla.
A few years ago, Cook's Illustrated came out with a stovetop rice pudding that's quite delicious; being a CI recipe, it's also easy. It wouldn't belong here, because it doesn't call for any eggs, but, as with the Boiled Cornstarch Pudding, which, come to think of it, didn't call for any eggs, either, I add one for extra richness. I insert it here to make a trio of desserts that are both foolproof and, as I say, usefully preliminary to the making of true custards.
1. Bring one cup water to boil in a heavy saucepan. Stir in 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup medium-grain rice. Simmer over low heat, stirring once or twice, until the water is almost fully absorbed - about fifteen to twenty minutes.
2. Combine 1 1/4 cups whole milk, 1 1/4 cups half-and-half, 1/3 cup sugar, and one lightly-beaten egg.
3. Add the milk mixture to the cooked rice. Bring it to a simmer and reduce the heat. Cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until the pudding starts to thicken - about thirty minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and continue to cook, stirring every couple of minutes to prevent burning and scorching, for about fifteen minutes.
4. Remove the pudding from the heat and stir in 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/4 cup raisins or Zante currants, and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.
5. Pour into a serving bowl and cool to room temperature.
The tricky custards are all made on the stove, and depend on the cook's utterly undistracted observation and judgment. While the three puddings listed above all involve simmering, if not a full boil, the very idea of bubbling is anathema in connection with custards.
The easy custards are baked. And they don't involve egg whites, so you can store these in a bottle and use them to make an angel food cake later on.
Here is an easy custard from Pauline's, a fine restaurant in South Burlington, Vermont. It is a crème brulée. Crème brulée is very easy to make nowadays because culinary blowtorches, running on lighter fluid, are readily available. Fear not. Skittish ladies will find their husbands unable to resist the challenge of finishing this dessert. Skittish husbands will just have to blow themselves up.
A ramekin is simply a small ovenproof bowl that holds a single serving. Ramekins are available in a wide variety of price ranges, but they're not always labeled as such. The scallop-edged dishes that most restaurants use for crème brulée are not hard to find, but in a pinch you can always use Pyrex custard cups. We are, after all, making custard.
1. Preheat the oven to 325º
2. Arrange the individual ramekins in a baking dish capable of holding them without crowding - you will using either four or six, depending on your table and your generosity. Then take the ramekins out: this was only a test. Fill the baking dish with boiling water and set it aside.
3. Bring two cups heavy cream and one cup maple syrup (no stinting) to the simmer. Remove from heat and let cool.
3. In a mixing bowl, whisk six egg yolks until smooth. Add a few tablespoons of the warm cream mixture to temper the yolks - a fancy term for warming them up. Then pour the yolks into the cream and stir until blended. Pour the result through a fine strainer or sieve into the ramekins.
4. Put the ramekins into the baking dish, making sure that the water level is about half that of the ramekins. Put the baking dish into the oven and bake the custards for about forty-five minutes, or until set. 'Set' does not mean 'firm'; the custards will jiggle.
5. Refrigerate the custards for at least two hours.
Now for something a little tricky. Crème anglaise is not a stand-alone dish, but an element in several classic desserts. Flavored with liqueurs, it provides the filling for zuppa inglese, an Italian take on trifle. And let's not forget trifle. One of the zeniths (so to speak) of comfort food is Floating Island, a treat for which Mrs Child provides a recipe directly following the one that I have taken, not necessarily verbatim, from The Way to Cook - a book that, if you've gotten this far, you really ought to invest in. My advice for first-time cooks is to buy a good angel-food or pound cake, or some meringues if you can find them, for use as a base; this will free you to concentrate on what follows. In the alternative, you can refrigerate the finished sauce for several days under cover.
1. In a heavy saucepan, whisk 6 egg yolks. When they are smooth, gradually add 2/3 cup sugar.
2. Continue beating for two or three minutes, until the color of the mixture lightens considerably, verging on a pale white. By then it will have thickened as well.
3. By dribbles, stir in 1 1/2 cups hot milk. Mrs Child cautions against beating the mixture, because that will make it foamy.
4. Courage. Set a burner to medium-low heat. (There is, unfortunately, no way of being more precise; stoves vary dramatically. If the heat is too low, nothing will happen in your lifetime, but if it is too high, the sauce will boil. Happily, there is a comfortable range between these extremes, and you will probably hit on it soon enough.)
5. Set the saucepan over the heat, and continue to stir, slowly but comprehensively, with a wooden spoon. If you're very lucky, you'll have found a wooden spoon with the profile of a Gumby head. These are terrific for getting at the corners of saucepans. In any case, do your very best to scrape every square centimetre of the bottom of the pan.
6. "The sauce should gradually come near - but not to - the simmer. ... Indications that it is almost ready are that surface bubbles begin to subside, and almost at once you may see a whiff of steam rising. Watch out at this point, you are almost there!" When the sauce coats the spoon, and your finger leaves a part that holds, the sauce is done.
To wind up this little tutorial, you might move onto the most glorious custards of them all, Hollandaise (sauce hollandaise), elsewhere on this site. Or consider the following, a structurally similar sauce, which is always great on steak, particularly on steak that isn't exactly fabulous. It's good on the frites part of steak-frites, too. The lemon juice of Hollandaise is replaced by a reduction of wine, vinegar, shallots, and tarragon.
1. Cube and freeze a stick (1/2 cup) of unsalted butter.
2. In a small saucepan, combine 1/4 cup dry vermouth, 1/4 cup wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon minced shallot, 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon, and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Reduce over moderate heat until about two tablespoons of liquid remain. Strain this into a light, stainless steel saucepan. Discard the solids.
3. Bring water to simmer in the bottom of a double boiler or other suitable vessel (bain-marie).
4. Separate three eggs, reserving the whites for another purpose, and add the yolks to the vermouth reduction.
5. Whisk the egg mixture together over the simmering water until the mixture just begins to thicken - about a minute. Add a few cubes of butter and continue to whisk until it has melted. Continue with all the butter, moving the saucepan to and from the steam. Within a minute or two of adding all the butter, the sauce will thicken almost to the consistency of mayonnaise. Serve as quickly as possible.
Those of you who covered this page before tackling soufflés ought to head there. Those of you who started with soufflés before running through this page now know everything there is to know. About where to find good eggs, I mean.
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press