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~ Silky-Smooth & Delicate: Traditional Egg Custard ~

IMG_0660I have a penchant for sweet treats with smooth, creamy consistencies:  pudding, mousse, ice cream, cheesecake, éclairs, cream pie, brûlée and crème caramel are off-the-top-of-my-head examples. They're luxurious and make me feel all "la-tee-da".  As a young bride and novice cook it was only natural that these were the first dessert recipes I gravitated too.  After a while it occurred to me that, technically speaking, they are all a form of basic egg custard -- the only creamy-type dessert my grandmother ever made and the first dessert that was spoonfed to me.

IMG_0661In its most basic form, custard is thickened by eggs alone.

A bit about custards:  The Ancient Romans were the first to understand the binding properties of eggs, and, by the Middle Ages, custards as we know them today were present and accounted for.  Initially, they were used only as fillings for pies, pastries and tarts -- the word "custard" is derived from the word "crustade" which is a tart with a crust.  It wasn't until the 16th Century that custards began appearing solo, as an individual dish rather than a filling for another dessert.

Technically, a custard is any liquid thickened by eggs, but, in almost all cases, that liquid is cream or milk.  Technically, custards fall into three categories determined by how they are thickened:  #1.  By eggs alone -- the most delicate.  #2.  Starch thickened.  #3.  Gelatin-set. Depending on how much egg or thickener is used, custards vary from a thin drizzly sauce to a thick pastry cream to a well-set dessert. Technically the word "custard"  or "crème anglaise" (English cream) refers to egg-thickened custard only.  When starch is added, it's called "pastry cream" or "crème pâtissière".  When gelatin is used, the proper term is "crème anglaise collée".   

Custards can be cooked on the stovetop in a double boiler, or, baked in the oven in a bain-marie (a water bath).  It's a delicate process requiring slow, controlled "insulated" cooking, not over or in direct heat.  On the stovetop, its temperature shouldn't exceed 178°F, and, when baked in the oven, they need to be removed while they still have a slight wobble in the center.

IMG_0674Enough with the fancy-schmancy French phrases.  Basic egg custard (the spoon dessert everyones loves) is easy to make.

IMG_0649About my egg custard recipe:  Most recipes do not call for jumbo eggs.  That said, when my grandmother (who owned a mom and pop grocery store) and her sister (who owned a farm and supplied the fresh eggs) made egg custard, they both always used the biggest eggs they could find.  Those were the instructions I was given and I follow them without question.  There's more: My grandmother heated her custard mixture on the stovetop until steaming and then baked it in a moderate 320°-325º oven.  That was her method and I stick to it -- it works perfectly every time.

IMG_06333  cups heavy or whipping cream

2  whole vanilla beans, cut/split in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out and pods reserved

2  teaspoons pure vanilla extract, not imitation

3/4  cup sugar

3  jumbo eggs

6  jumbo egg yolks

freshly-ground nutmeg, for garnishing each serving

IMG_0631To prepare the the water bath:

This is a 12" stainless-steel baking pan, identical to my grandmothers (I had to replace hers) containing 5 cups of tepid water (enough to fill the pan with water to exactly half the height of the custard cups) and nine of my grandmother's now-vintage Pyrex 1-cup custard cups. Both the baking pan and custard cups are available on Amazon.

PICT5058Step 1.  To prepare the custard: Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut each vanilla bean in half and then cut each half in half lengthwise. Using a sharp paring knife, scrape the seeds out of the pod.

Note:  I am often asked if it's ok to skip the vanilla beans.  Some say they can't find them, others complain about their cost.  That's valid.  Making this dessert with extract alone is just fine.


Step 2.  In a 1 1/2-quart saucepan place and stir together the cream, vanilla seeds, empty pods, vanilla extract and sugar.

PICT5065Place over medium heat, stirring often until steaming. Do not allow to simmer or boil. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 10 minutes. 

PICT5069Remove and discard the vanilla bean pods.  They've done their job.

Step 3.  In an 8-quart measuring container, whisk the eggs and egg yolks.  In very small increments at first, then in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly, add the cream mixture to the eggs.    

Note:  Adding too much hot cream mixture at first can cause the eggs to "scramble", so error on the side of less for the first couple of additions.

IMG_0637The technical term for this is: "tempering the eggs".  It simply heats them up very slowly so they don't start to cook or scramble.

~ Step 4.  Slowly pour (I pour) or ladle (if it's easier for you) the custard into the custard cups, filling each one about three-quarters of capacity (3/4 cup) -- the top "fill line" is conveniently marked on each cup.  They're ready for the oven.

IMG_0643~ Step 5.  Place baking pan on center rack of preheated 320°-325° oven and bake for about 38-40 minutes, watching carefully after 35 minutes.  Custard will be just set yet still a bit wobbly in the centers.  It is also not unusual for a few temporary air bubbles to appear on the surface, and, depending upon your oven, slight signs of browning in spots may occur.  No big deal.

IMG_0657~ Step 6.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely in bain-marie, about 2 hours -- yes, even the cooling process is done slowly in a moist environment.  Remove from water bath and set aside, uncovered, until serving time. Custard is best served at room temperature the same day it is made, but, even after refrigeration for a day or two, it is still divine.

Out of the oven, perfectly-cooked & cooling in bain-marie:

IMG_0652What are you waiting for?  Sprinkle w/nutmeg & dig in!

IMG_0664Silky-Smooth & Delicate:  Traditional Egg Custard:  Recipe yields 9, 3/4-cup-sized servings.

Special Equipment List:  9, 1-cup custard cups; 12" x 12" x 2" baking pan;  1 1/2-quart saucepan w/lid; kitchen shears; paring knife; slotted spoon; 8-cup measuring container; whisk

IMG_0623Cook's Note:  The British and the Australians have another form of custard that contains no eggs at all. It's a product called custard powder, and, in those two countries, more-often-than-not, if someone says "custard", it's implied that it's made using Bird's.  To learn more about this time-saving ingredient, just click on the Related Article link below.  It is perfect to keep on-hand in your pantry for when you need to make a small quantity of custard in a hurry.  

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)


Can you make this custard in a large bowl instead of individual ramekins?

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