When I wrote about puddings the other week, I did suggest that custard was quite possibly the best accompaniment and that I would look at it another time… well, that time has come!
As I am sure you know, custard is based on a cooked mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. Depending on how much egg or thickener is used, custard can vary in consistency from a thin pouring sauce, such as crème anglaise, to a thick pastry cream, or crème pâtissière, beloved of so many of today’s chefs, and used to fill éclairs.
Mixtures of milk and eggs thickened by heat have long been part of European cuisine and can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome – perhaps Caesar was a custard fan!?
Most common custards are used in desserts or as a sauce to accompany a pud and usually include sugar and vanilla. But you can also have a savoury custard which can be used for quiches and other savoury foods.
Custard is usually cooked in a double boiler (bain-marie), or heated gently in a saucepan on a stove, although it can also be steamed, baked in the oven with or without a water bath, or even cooked in a pressure cooker.
As anyone who has seen ‘The Great British Bake Off’ will know, creating a good custard is a delicate operation! A temperature increase of just 3–6°C leads to overcooking and curdling and Paul and Mary roll their eyes. Generally, custard begins setting at 70°C and a fully cooked custard should not exceed 80°C.
I am quite a custard fan, but making it from scratch is time-consuming. Nowadays, you can buy delicious fresh custard in pots in supermarkets in full fat or skinny options depending on your conscience. There is also good old Ambrosia tinned custard, always a handy option to keep in the cupboard for an emergency.
However… you do need the right custard for the job, instant, or otherwise. If you are making a trifle, do not do what I did many years ago and used tinned custard, it needs to be a custard that sets! My beautifully arranged cherries and piped cream all sank into the runny custard beneath and I ended up with a bowl full of mush that looked awful, although it tasted fine!
Bird’s Custard is a great way of making set custard quickly and easily and is just what you need in a trifle. However, it isn’t really a ‘proper’ custard at all… Bird’s Custard is the brand name for a powdered, egg-free imitation custard powder. It is a cornflour-based powder that thickens to form a custard-like sauce when mixed with milk and heated in a pan. Bird’s Custard was first formulated and cooked by Mr Alfred Bird in 1837 at his chemist shop, in Birmingham because his wife was allergic to eggs!
I think custard is a very personal thing. I was very nearly put off it for life at school when we were served a quartet of custards of varying degrees of hideousness at school. In order of awfulness they were:
- White custard – just about bearable
- Yellow custard – a bit sickly and often lumpy
- Brown custard – very unpleasant to look at and having no relationship with chocolate at all
- Pink custard – utterly, utterly vile and sickly with a peculiar smell and very often with a skin on top!!
But each to their own. Perhaps you prefer cream, or ice cream on your pud or were so traumatised by custard at school that you don’t ever want to see it again… I’d love to hear your thoughts!