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.