What is Custard?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Bananas are often combined with custard to make pies.
Bananas are often combined with custard to make pies.

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.

Pumpkin pie is a baked version of custard familiar to the American palate.
Pumpkin pie is a baked version of custard familiar to the American palate.

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.

Creme brûlée is a kind of caramelized custard.
Creme brûlée is a kind of caramelized custard.

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.

The French dessert crème caramel has a custard base.
The French dessert crème caramel has a custard base.

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.

Custard is thickened using eggs.
Custard is thickened using eggs.

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.

Blancmange, or vanilla, is a typical custard variety.
Blancmange, or vanilla, is a typical custard variety.

One can also buy instant puddings and custards. Gourmets, however, tend to prefer the homemade variety as it yields a fresher taste.

Milk is a main ingredient in custard.
Milk is a main ingredient in custard.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

sinefey

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.

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