By Laura Sawicki
Photography by Carole Topalian
I’m a professional pastry chef, so I know the difference between a crème brûlée, crème caramel and crème anglaise—all children of the custard family.
However, to the home cook, all custards probably sound about the same, and unfortunately, on paper, they pretty much read the same, too.
All custards are soft, wiggly, rich and indulgent, yet each is delightfully unique and different. One might be refined and elegant, while another a nostalgic nod to childhood; one might be served warm and another frozen; one might be sweet and another savory. Interestingly, all custards are born of the same three ingredients: dairy, egg and sugar. What sets each apart is the method of cooking and ratio of ingredients.
Let’s begin by understanding the role that each ingredient plays in the larger picture. Dairy can mean milk, cream or a combination of the two; sugar obviously serves to sweeten, but also acts as a tenderizer; and eggs are the primary structural ingredient in the custard. Whole eggs contain proteins that coagulate when gently introduced to heat and allow custards such as flan enough sturdiness to be unmolded. Egg yolks are used in recipes like crème brûlée to achieve a lusciousness and opulence not attainable with whole eggs. Because a custard base is made up of such simple and humble ingredients, it’s vital to start with the freshest ingredients available. I assure you that you’ll see and taste the difference.
Custards are generally made in one of two ways: stirred custards are cooked on the stove top, and baked custards are cooked in a water bath in the oven. Both methods use low, gentle heat to prevent scorching the dairy and scrambling the eggs. Luckily, no special equipment is needed to make custard. In fact, you probably already have the necessary items in your kitchen: a saucepan, mixing bowl, wooden spoon, whisk, strainer, ramekins, a baking dish and some aluminum foil.
Perhaps the most difficult part of making custard is deciding which type to make. Stirred custards include crème anglaise, which can be made into a delicious dessert sauce, spun into a mouthwatering ice cream or even become the start of a perfect mousse. Another is pastry cream, which is like anglaise but with the addition of starch to thicken it to a pudding-like consistency. Whichever stirred custard you make, it will need to cook until it’s nappe, or coats the back of a wooden spoon, and then be allowed to “age” overnight—allowing the eggs to work their gelling magic.
Baked custards are started on the stove top and finished in the oven. Warming the dairy helps dissolve the sugar and increases the temperature, which cuts down on the otherwise long baking time. Baked custards include flan (crème caramel as it’s also known), pot de crème (delicious little pots of cream), crème brûlée, bread pudding and even quiche (the exception to the water-bath rule).
These desserts are completely within the skill range of any home cook—just remember: low and slow. When it comes to custards, patience is a virtue. Once you’ve got the hang of it, try infusing flavors into the dairy, like herbs, spices, teas, coffees and even candies. There’s a lot of room for experimentation.
BAKED CUSTARD: CRÈME CARAMEL OR FLAN
½ c. sugar
2 t. lemon juice
¼ c. water
For the caramel: Place 8 ramekins in a deep baking dish. In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, lemon juice and water to a boil over high heat. Cover for 1 minute to allow the steam to wash down the sides of the pot. Alternatively, use a clean pastry brush and water to wash the sides down to prevent any crystallization. Continue to cook over high heat until the mixture is an amber color, swirling the saucepan carefully to distribute the heat evenly. Once amber, add a splash of tepid water to stop the cooking—be careful; it will splatter. Then, very quickly and carefully, pour equal amounts of the mixture into each ramekin, making sure it coats the bottoms evenly.
Allow to set while preparing the custard base.
4 c. whole milk
1½ c. sugar, divided
5 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
1 t. vanilla extract
For the custard: Preheat the oven to 300°. In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, salt and half of the sugar. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg yolks. Bring the milk to a scald (just before boiling). Meanwhile, very gradually stir the remaining sugar into the eggs, being careful not to “burn” them (when sugar is dumped directly on top of egg yolks it will cause what’s known as a “burn” on the yolks—clumps forming in the yolks that are nearly impossible to smooth out as you proceed with a recipe). Place a dish towel beneath the mixing bowl containing the eggs to prevent it from moving and slowly add a ladle of the hot milk to the eggs while whisking constantly. Once the eggs are tempered (gently heated to prevent curdling), slowly add the egg mixture to the saucepan and remove from the heat. Add the vanilla extract and stir well.
Strain the mixture through a sieve or fine-mesh strainer. Place the baking dish containing the ramekins on a rack in the middle of the oven, and very carefully fill each ramekin with the warm custard base. Pour hot water into the baking dish until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Be sure the ramekins are evenly spaced to ensure even baking. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, or until jiggly but set. This may take longer depending on the oven, the temperature of the custard or because these custards can be a little fussy. Fret not—be patient and continue to cook until set. Every 15 minutes or so, vent out the steam by carefully lifting a side of the foil and gently blowing out the steam.
Once the flans have finished baking, allow them to cool in the baking dish, then carefully remove them and place in the refrigerator to chill completely. They will need several hours to set. To unmold, carefully run a paring knife around the edge of the custard, place a small plate over the ramekin then, holding the plate in place, flip over to release. Scrape out any excess caramel. The flans will keep up to 4 days in the fridge.
STIRRED CUSTARD: CRÈME ANGLAISE, VANILLA SAUCE OR ICE CREAM
Yield: 1½ qt.
2 c. whole milk
2 c. heavy cream
1 c. sugar, divided
1 vanilla bean
9 egg yolks
Combine the milk, cream, salt and half of the sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and use the back of a pairing knife to scrape out the pulp. Add the pod and its pulp to the saucepan and stir well to dissolve the sugar. In the meantime, carefully separate the eggs (reserving the whites for another purpose) and place the yolks in a bowl and whisk them. Very gradually whisk the remaining sugar into the egg yolks, being careful not to “burn” them (when sugar is dumped directly on top of egg yolks it will cause what’s known as a “burn” on the yolks—clumps forming in the yolks that are nearly impossible to smooth out as you proceed with a recipe).
Once the dairy mixture reaches the point of scald (just before boiling), lower the heat to medium-low. Place the bowl of yolks on top of a dish towel to keep it steady, and slowly add a ladle of the hot mixture while whisking constantly. This is referred to as tempering the yolks, or gently heating them to prevent curdling. Carefully add the tempered yolk mixture to the saucepan, stirring constantly. Keep the heat at medium-low, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Cook the mixture to 170°, or until it coats the back of the spoon. Strain the mixture through a sieve or fine-mesh strainer and cool it in an ice bath immediately. Chill the custard overnight in the refrigerator. The following day, freeze the custard in an ice cream machine or use it as a sauce to garnish a favorite dessert.
This custard base can be enhanced by infusing a number of different things into the dairy. Begin the recipe as suggested, and add the flavoring of your choice just after the milk comes up to a scald. Add herbs, spices, teas, coffees or candies, cover and allow to infuse for about 20 minutes, depending on the infusion. Taste, adjust seasonings and strain the mixture. If there was significant absorption of liquid, adjust by adding enough milk or cream to return to the original volume. Proceed with the rest of the steps.
Custard Dos and Don'ts
• Do start with fresh, high-quality ingredients.
• Don’t try to cut back on fat or sugar. These desserts have few ingredients, and each is crucial to success. Keep things rich and indulgent—just enjoy them in moderation.
• Do make sure you know whether your custard should be stirred or baked.
• Don’t rush! Cooking times can be long, and chilling times even longer. The best results require patience.
• Do watch the heat. Custards are very delicate and react poorly to spikes in temperature.