Cooking Techniques: Custard

website custard

“I want to be custard for Halloween.”

This was my first daughter’s announcement to me one day when she was four.

“Custard?” I said. “I’m not sure if I know how to make a custard costume.” I tried to imagine a bowl around her body and her being the custard, but it wasn’t working.

“It’s easy, mommy. I just need a long tail and spikes and purple wings.”

You can imagine the confused look I had on my face as I processed my daughter’s response. I hadn’t eaten a lot of custards in my lifetime, but I knew they didn’t include tails, spikes and wings.

It took a few minutes of sorting, but I finally figured out that my daughter wanted to be Custard from the Custard, the Cowardly Dragon book. Ironically, making a dragon costume ended up being much easier than trying to construct a bowl of custard for a costume.

When I received a question this week from someone who had read my pudding post, asking about tips for custard, I was reminded of that confusing conversation I had with my daughter so many years ago.

When it comes to custard, there can be just as much confusion, because there can be a  Crème brûlée custard, a pot de crème custard, or finally, crème caramel custard, more traditionally thought of as flan. Crème brûlée is a very rich custard. You use heavy cream and only egg yolks, and you top it with caramelized sugar. Pot de crème usually uses both cream and milk with more egg yolks, making it more eggy than other custards.  Crème caramel is a lighter custard, using whole eggs and in most flan recipes, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk mixed together. Flan is usually inverted so the caramel sauce can be on top.

Custard, like pudding, is not difficult to make, but folks don’t usually do so. I don’t make much custard myself but I did make custard with one restaurant I worked for many years ago, and I learned some tips and useful information which are helpful to keep in mind no matter what recipe you find and decide to use for making custard.

Tips for Making Custard

1.  Deciding on the type of custard you want: All custard is delicious, but you need to decide how rich you want it to be. The thicker your “milk” product, the richer your custard, so a soy or coconut creamer works well as a substitute for heavy cream. If you’re going for a lighter custard, you can use “milk” like soy, flax, coconut or rice milk. If you want to make your own sweetened condensed milk, you simply mix about 1/2 cup of a sweetener (sugar, honey, Agave, coconut sugar, etc…) with about 3 cups of coconut or soy or flax milk with a dash of salt and let it gently cook for a long time until the mixture has thickened and reduced in amount. You’ll want to be sure to stir it every so often so it doesn’t stick to the pan and burn.

The other consideration besides richness is how tender you want the custard to be. Generally the greater amount egg yolks you use, the more tender the custard will be. A crème caramel or flan is able to be inverted because it’s a very sturdy custard due to the use of egg whites in addition to the yolks. If you use only egg yolks, your custard will definitely be a bowl-type of dish. If you are allergic to eggs, you should make pudding instead. You’ll find recipes which say they are “eggless custard”, but eggless custard is basically pudding.

The final consideration is what type of sweetness you want to your custard. A crème brûlée is the sweetest to taste because you caramelize the sugar into a crisp coating on top which tingles the taste buds as you bite into the custard. A pot de crème’s sweetness is in the custard itself, and the flan gets a light sweetness from the caramel sauce.

2. Deciding how to make the custard: There are basically two methods to making custard. The first is thickening the custard on the stove-top and then solidifying it in the refrigerator, similar to the method used for pudding. The second is to bake the custard in the oven before cooling it in the refrigerator.

If you make the custard on the stove, you should use a double boiler or stack one pan on top of another. By cooking the custard over boiling water, you eliminate the threats of burning and curdling and allow the custard the time it needs to thicken slowly.

Some good tips: If you warm your “milk” or “cream” in the microwave for a minute or two before beginning to cook your custard, you’ll greatly decrease the amount of time you need to thicken the custard. This is similar to what older custard recipes are calling for when they tell you to “scald the milk”.

When your recipe tells you to add your “sugar” to the egg yolks, whether you use sugar, agave, honey, coconut sugar or whatever, be sure to add the sugar slowly while you are constantly stirring the yolks. If you don’t, the sugar will clump up into your yolks and not be smooth.

When your recipe tells you to add the eggs to the hot milk mixture, always, always temper the eggs first. This means that you take a little bit of your hot milk mixture and slowly whisk it into your eggs first. Then you add the eggs slowly, whisking all the time, back into the milk mixture. By tempering you help to even the temperatures between the eggs and the hot milk so your eggs don’t start to cook when you add them to the milk.

If you decided to bake your custard, you should do so in a warm water bath. This means putting your custard dish into a larger pan with warm water so the custard will cook more evenly.

There are a couple of methods for doing a water bath. You can bring water to a boil, let it cool slightly and add it to your pan around the custard dish, or you can fill your pan with water and put it into the oven when you’re preheating it so it’ll be warm by the time you put your custard dish into it. I prefer the second method because you reduce your risk of spilling hot water on you because you aren’t pouring boiling water or moving a pan with hot water into the oven. The pan is already on the rack, so you’re simply placing the custard dish down into the water filled pan.

A tip for baked custard: I have found that even though most baked custards simply have you mixing the ingredients and then baking, I’ve learned that if you follow the stove top method of thickening the custard before you put the custard into the oven to bake, you get a tastier, creamier baked custard.

Also, if you’re looking for a smoother custard, straining the custard through a sieve before putting it into your pan to bake will help.

Finally, as with pudding, if you put a layer of plastic wrap directly on top of your custard while it’s cooling in the fridge, it prevents that little layer of thickening skin on top.

Pumpkin Custard

Because I was talking about the custard email with my family, my middle child asked if I could make pumpkin custard. Below is the recipe I created. Since I didn’t want to use sugar, I created a topping that has some fiber but also the sweetness you’d get from a caramelized sugar. The hardened topping makes a nice contrast to the soft custard.


8 eggs

1/2 cup coconut sugar

1/2 cup agave

4 cups pureed cooked pumpkin (canned is fine)

1 tsp dried orange peel

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ginger

1/4 tsp cloves

1/4 tsp salt

3 cups “milk” (flax, soy, rice, etc…. for richer custard use soy or coconut creamer)

4 tbsp “butter” (I use Earth Balance soy free version)

2 cups gluten free quick oats

1 1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/2 cup agave

Cooking Instructions:

1. Fill a 4 inch high pan with tap water about half filled.  Put the pan into the oven and preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

2. Fill a pot half full of water and bring to a boil. Be sure you can safely place another pot snugly on top of this pot to act as a double boiler.

3. Beat the eggs well. While whisking continually, add the coconut sugar and agave.

4. Mix the pumpkin, the eggs, orange peel, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt. Set aside.

5. In a microwave safe bowl, heat the milk one minute. Stir. Then heat another minute.

6. Pour the milk into the top pan of the double boiler, and cook until the milk begins to bubble slightly around the edges, stirring occasionally. This should only take a couple of minutes since you’ve pre-warmed the milk.

7. Slowly pour 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the pumpkin-egg mixture, whisking constantly. Do the same with a second 1/2 cup of milk.

8. While stirring with a whisk, slowly add the pumpkin-egg mixture into the remaining hot milk. Stirring continually, cook until the custard begins to thicken. This should only take another couple of minutes. When it’s thick, the custard will stick to the back of a wooden spoon.

9. If desired, strain the custard through a sieve or simply pour into a 2 quart heatproof casserole dish.

10. Gently and carefully place the custard dish into the hot pan of water and bake for 50 minutes.

11. While the custard is baking, make the topping by melting the “butter” in a saucepan and adding the oats. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes, being sure to stir every once a while.

12. Add the agave and cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander, and cook another 5 minutes, stirring frequently. The topping will darken and begin to clump together.

13. After the custard has baked 50 minutes. use two spoons to gently drop spoonfuls of the topping onto the top of the custard. Bake for another 10 minutes.

14. Turn the oven to broil and broil for 2 to 4 minutes, watching so that your topping doesn’t burn. You just want to harden it a bit to a dark golden brown.

15. Cool the custard for at least 15 minutes on a cooling rack before putting into the refrigerator to solidify.

16. To serve, bring the custard to room temperature or slightly warm it in the oven at low temperature.



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