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Custard is a traditional dessert in Europe. It differs from pudding in that it is thickened with eggs. It also forms the basis for gelato, and may be used as a thin sauce. A custard-type base is also used to make French toast, or to make egg dishes like quiche.
This dessert is typically cooked over a double boiler. It may be additionally thickened with cornstarch or with gelatin. The French distinguish custard made with such thickeners as separate from that made with no thickener.
Once the milk is thoroughly heated, the eggs are added in a very tricky process. They must be added one at a time so they do not “cook” in the hot milk mixture. If this process is done properly, the custard will have a smooth texture. Depending upon the amount of eggs added and additional thickening agents, the final product may be fairly firm, or it can be thin. A vanilla custard sauce makes a delicious and rich topping for desserts.
Milk products used in custard are usually cream or half-and-half. Lower fat milk tends not to provide much thickness as the milk heats. If using lower fat milk, it is advisable to use cornstarch as a thickener as well as eggs.
Typical custard varieties include either Blancmange or vanilla, and pots de crème, a thick chocolate custard. One delicious form is crème caramel, which is baked. It has a layer of sugar that is burned to give a crunchy bottom to the dish. Italian cream is another baked type without the caramel sugar layer.
One baked variety quite familiar to the US palate is pumpkin pie. Often Americans make no distinction between pudding and custard. Early American recipes called any type in a pie shell a pudding in a paste. Today, combining an already prepared custard with a pre-baked pie shell makes many pies. Chocolate custard pie, and banana cream pie are both made in this manner.
One can also buy instant puddings and custards. Gourmets, however, tend to prefer the homemade variety as it yields a fresher taste.
Flan is a Mexican type of custard. Instead of a crunchy caramel it has a creamy caramel "sauce" that is poured over it after it's taken out of the baking dish.