Christmas basics: the perfect custard

Justine Costigan
27 November, 2015

We're looking at those staple recipes that can make or break your Christmas spread. First up, the much-misunderstood sweet seductress, custard.

Custard. Even the word has a lovely solidity to it, reminiscent of childhood desserts, English cooking and post-meal contentment. It’s basic, prosaic and a little homely. No wonder the French decided to give it the more elegant name crème anglaise.

Depending on your experience of it, custard is either the most disgusting dish ever to be invented or it’s the very reason why you would even consider making poached fruit, jam roly-poly or apple pie – just for the pure pleasure of engulfing them in a voluptuous, warm, vanilla-scented cream. And if you’re planning on eating Christmas pudding this festive season, your fabulous finale just won’t be the same without it.

Why do people hate custard?

Blame war-time shortages and the evolution of industrialised food. Instant custard mixes that offered bright yellow gloop not only frightened people away from the real thing but also hoodwinked them into thinking making it was difficult. After all, adding milk (or water!) to a powder and stirring is easy; cooking real eggs, milk and sugar is comparatively hard.

But actually it’s not. And once you’ve mastered this beautiful dish you’ll be able to whip up desserts both simple and sublime: from a baked custard dusted with freshly grated nutmeg to trifles, tarts, ice-cream and custard-filled profiteroles, éclairs and doughnuts.

Runny or thick?

Custards can be runny and creamy through to thick enough to hold upside down in a spoon. For really thick custard such as a crème pâtissière, you’ll need a thickener such as cornflour or flour, but custard sauces also benefit from a thickener, too. Australia’s two cooking elders Margaret Fulton and Beverley Sutherland Smith both use cornflour in their custard sauce. Adding it to your mix of eggs, sugar, vanilla and milk will ensure your custard won’t split – the main reason unconfident cooks fear the whole process.

Although the French named their crème anglaise after English custard, the French version is typically fine, more like runny cream than a robust sauce. Leith’s How to Cook has a classic recipe with milk, yolks and sugar with the mix gently cooked to thicken the sauce so it just clings to a wooden spoon. You’ll also find recipes for crème anglaise in all the classic French cookbooks and many books by well-known chefs (who have kitchen hands to stand at the stove and do the stirring for them).

It’s with these crème anglaise recipes that you might run into trouble in the kitchen. A thickened English custard is the best accompaniment for a classic Christmas pudding but if you opt for a crème anglaise recipe you’ll need to watch your sauce carefully. Cooking at too high a temperature may scramble your custard. Cooling it quickly is the only way to prevent a disaster. Nigella Lawson recommends keeping a sink full of iced water ready for such an occasion but taking the custard off the heat, adding cold milk and blending with a stick mixer can also restore your custard to creamy smoothness.

“Plain” or flavoured?

Recipes for custard vary but the classic versions use milk, egg yolks, sugar and a vanilla bean or extract. Custard made with cream is often a way of reducing the amount of eggs in the recipe without sacrificing richness. Or it’s just a way of making your custard extra indulgent.

Custards can be flavoured with alcohol, coffee, chocolate, or citrus. Infuse your milk with spices or herbs or substitute milk for coconut cream. Custards can be baked, steamed or cooked in a pot. At Christmas time, a brandy-infused custard is the ultimate over-the-top blessing for a sozzled then set-alight pudding. If you’re looking for good cheer at Christmas time, you really can’t do better than that.

Top 5 tips for perfect custard

  1. Temper your custard. Pastry master Philippa Sibley recommends, to avoid curdling, pour just one-third of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly until well combined, before adding the rest. This “tempers” or stabilises the egg yolk. If you add all the hot liquid at once, the yolks could “shock” and curdle.
  2. Work quickly. Sibley again cautions that egg yolks “burn” if left in contact with sugar. This creates lumps that will spoil your lovely smooth custard, so make sure your milk mixture is hot and ready to go before whisking the eggs and sugar together, and add the hot liquid straight away.
  3. Temperature is important. If you’re just starting out, try using a thermometer. Many recipes will say to cook until the custard has ‘thickened’ or until it ‘coats the back of a spoon’, which is rather vague and can lead to overcooking and curdling. Custard is cooked when it reaches 80°C.
  4. Strain your custard. This removes the lumps and ensure silky smooth custard. Simple.
  5. Use an ice bath. You don’t want your custard to reach much higher than 80°C, so when it’s cooked, strain the custard directly into a clean bowl sitting in an ice bath. This will halt the cooking.

Want to smother something decadent with your perfect custard? Check out our great range of baking titles in our bookstore, all at 30% off for members.

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