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Custard is the term for a dessert that is usually made with milk, egg yolks, and sugar, and vanilla is one of its most common flavors. It is usually cooked slowly in a double boiler or saucepan and is generally a slow process that requires attention to detail. Depending on the way it is cooked, vanilla custard can have a wide range of consistencies. The origins of custard specifically are generally believed to be in the Middle Ages, but may also go back to the Roman empire. Besides vanilla custard, there are many other variations of the custard dish, including non-sweet versions.
Traditionally, vanilla custard is cooked in a microwave or over a stove, but it can also be steamed, baked, or made in a pressure cooker. The custard generally needs to be cooked over time and over a very low heat because too high of a temperature increase will most likely lead to curdling. It generally begins to settle at 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius), and the custard itself should usually not exceed 176 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius). The eggs and sugar are usually combined, and milk or cream is then mixed into it to prevent the eggs from cooking by themselves.
Vanilla custard can be flavored using different techniques. Some recipes simply use vanilla extract, while others use vanilla milk. A traditional method of flavoring is to use the actual vanilla pod, which usually involves adding the pod to the milk and then removing it later on in the process.
Depending on the dish, vanilla custard can be rich and thick or as thin as sauce. In the United Kingdom, vanilla custard is usually saucy and its purpose is to be poured over another dessert. Other recipes call for the custard to be thicker so as to comprise the main dessert itself, with fruits or pastry to complement it. These rich versions are usually made by using heavier cream, whereas thin versions call for milk or single cream.
An important part of making custard is the binding function of the egg, and some historians believe that this discovery goes as far back as the Roman empire. The sweet, pudding-like version that later developed is usually attributed to the Middle Ages, where it was most often used as filling for pies or other pastries, both in Europe and Asia. From the European cooks, the confection traveled to the Americas and flourished there. The late 19th century was when commercial versions of custard and pudding started to develop and were marketed towards children.
Vanilla custard is far from the only flavor of custard available, although it is certainly one of the most common. Chocolate, caramel, or fruit-flavored custards are also popular. Non-sweet custard dishes, such as quiche, are also eaten around the world.
One of the most important things to remember about making a custard is to temper those eggs! It's a simple procedure, but critical, and many recipes do not mention doing this.
To temper eggs, all a cook needs to do is to add about a teaspoon of the hot mixture to the eggs (which are in a separate bowl) and stir. This warms the eggs and will keep them from scrambling when they are added to the custard itself. I've never had my eggs scramble in a custard if I temper them first, and I've made a good many custards from scratch. You do need a double boiler of some description to do them right, though. Whether it's an actual double boiler, or a bowl over a pot of water, using one it really does make all the difference in how a custard turns out.
If you have doubts about the eggs, you can always strain the custard, and no one will ever know the difference. The eggy bits will be left behind.