Bringing Egg Custard Back to the Home Kitchen

Dessert custard topped with strawberry
Dessert custard topped with strawberry

With a silken smoothness, inconspicuous richness and long history of homemade pride to accompany it, the egg custard is one dessert that deserves praise. When made correctly, egg-based puddings have a lightness that cleanses the taste buds and pleases digestion like no other.

Real Egg Custard Goes Beyond Store Bought

Like many other dishes in modern American society, imposters of egg-based pudding abound. The real deal is no Jell-O brand derivative, nor is it of a SnackPack status quo. In fact, despite being far from complicated, the creation of flavorful homemade pudding is thoughtfully in depth.

Ideally, custard is an amalgam of milk and eggs that’s heated on low and brought to a thick consistency.  As with most dishes, the key to good custard lies in the quality of the ingredients; fresh milk and eggs is paramount. Other flavoring ingredients, like sugar to sweeten and even chocolate to diversify, typically become a part of the custard family. What pudding connoisseurs are left with is a delightfully simple and satisfying dessert that the whole family can appreciate.

The History of American-Style Egg Custard

Believe it or not, sweet custard concoctions date all the way back to the Middle Ages. Whether eaten alone or used as a filling in tarts and other delectable treats, it seems that folks have always appreciated the straightforward nature of a custard.

When Europeans brought custard over to the Americas, western inhabitants welcomed the recipes with open arms. The Europeans also brought pudding, which at the time was a whole different story (think savory, meaty and—perhaps most importantly—inexpensive).

In the late 19th century, Americans began to blur the lines between egg custards and puddings. Food began to become a surplus product, so frugal meat puddings weren’t nearly as necessary to feed rumbling stomachs. Moreover, custard powders came into play, meaning one didn’t necessarily have to have access to fresh eggs to create a rich batch of dessert pudding. By the 1930s, starches of corn, arrowroot and tapioca (or subsidiary products based on these ingredients) were often used as a thickener in lieu of low heat and patience.

The custards we know and love today have evolved beyond pastry fillings, however delicious pastries may be. Once home cooks began serving the thick and creamy dessert in individual serving cups, sometimes with crusts at the bottom or preserves atop, there was no looking back.

How Egg Custards and Puddings Are Used Today

Vanilla custard decorated with caramel
Vanilla custard decorated with caramel

Home cooks of modern America are getting more and more creative, even with dishes that got their start as stripped-down basics.

Famed chefs on Food Network, including Sandra Lee (whose shtick includes budget-conscious ingredients, something true to the pudding name), popularized the custard pie. Adding berries or coconut freshens the dessert.

Banana, chocolate and vanilla puddings still find their way into the mainstream, often with textured treats like Nilla Wafers, Oreos and Cool Whip to accompany them.

Mousse-style pudding for two is undoubtedly a delicacy, while custard baked in individual ramekins grants a premium feel to a traditional dish. Moreover, single-serving crust-lined tarts offer the ease of takeaway and the satisfaction of old-fashioned baking.

When all is said and done, traditional egg-based custard and pudding is definitely still kicking.

Beginning Your Custard Journey

Starting a new journey in any fashion can be intimidating, especially when it’s something that’s been in family cookbooks for centuries. However, the route to the custard realm is a simple one.

If you’re not already akin to them, take the time to familiarize yourself with the essence of vanilla and the inviting bitterness of cocoa. You may even want to dabble in the citrus realm, for traditional custard pairs well with acidic zests.

Know where to find quality dairy milk and eggs, unwavering custard staples. Proper ingredients not only serve to make your life easier, but they also work to highlight the hard work you’ve put in to your homemade dish. Plus, it’s always worth it to know you’re supporting deserving farms, happy cows and chickens living the easy life.

Basic Tips on Whipping Up An Egg Custard Recipe

Whether you’re a veteran of egg-based sweets or you’re new to the custard game, you’ll likely benefit from a few foolproof tips that guarantee the best pudding on the block.

  • Take the time to scald the milk. While this step was initially included to kill off bacteria in unpasteurized milk (an issue that is no longer relevant for most dairy consumers), many home chefs conclude that bringing the milk to 180 degrees, the temperature just before boiling, leads the way for a silky smooth texture.
  • Be patient and temper the eggs. This step is crucial as pouring hot milk over raw eggs too fast will lead to one thing only: scrambled eggs. If what you’re after is a creamy pudding or smooth custard, pouring the milk into the eggs slowly while whisking is key.
  • To avoid overheating stovetop custard, use a double boiler. This method provides a softer heat that keeps you from reaching an unwanted temperature.
  • When baking custard, use a water bath. Place the custard ramekins or pan atop a rimmed baking sheet and slide into the oven. Then, fill with water to surround the custard container, allowing it to reach the height of the desserts themselves (be sure to fill the water after placing the pan in the oven to avoid any unfortunate spills). This step works to promote steam throughout the baking process, ultimately preventing the custard from cracking or drying and the eggs from cooking.
  • Remember that custard continues to thicken as it cools down. Knowing this ought to keep you from overcooking and over-thickening your dessert during the cooking process.
  • Last but definitely not least, don’t be afraid to make your egg custard or pudding your own. This dish may have been around since the middle ages, but as the leader of your own kitchen, what you say goes.

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