A Techniques Primer: Custards and Puddings

20 Apr
Thank you, eggies, for your thickening power.

Thank you, eggies, for your thickening power.

A reader, Pam, “delurked” yesterday to ask for clarification about putting together a custard.  When to use butter; when not to use butter.  She also said (tongue in cheek, I hope) that she was afraid that I would tap my foot disapprovingly and ask her why she hadn’t been paying attention all along.  Well, fear not, Pam.  I have decided that I am just not that person.  A few months ago, before I started this wee blog and before I started truly understanding the level of hesitancy out there when it comes to cooking, I made the conscious decision not to be the food snob who rolls their eyes at folks who think foie gras sounds “icky,” or to smugly smirk when someone tells me that their favorite restaurant is Chili’s.  I have given myself the job of demystifying recipes, not denigrating those who try to follow them.

In my current kitchen view, a recipe is a list of ingredients that has been stapled to a description of the technique/techniques for combining said ingredients.  So, to avoid confusion, I thought I’d give you a bit of a technique primer.

Puddings and Custards

Custards are thickened with the power of eggs. Some use yolks, some use whole eggs, some use a mixture of yolks and eggs.  Regardless, unless it contains eggs, it’s not technically a custard.  Since eggs are so versatile, there are lots of ways to cook them.  On their own, scrambled, poached, coddled, fried, baked, hard cooked all come to mind.  But when used as one ingredient in a custard, the way the eggs set up determines the style of the custard.  If you stir and cook a custard to its maximum thickness on the stove top, it’s called a stirred custard.  If you pour the custard into a mold of some sort and then bake it, it’s called a baked or “still” custard.  And, in the US, if the custard contains starch, we call it pudding.  In France, a starch based custard is pastry cream or crème pâtissière.  Still custards are generally the most firm, followed by starch-thickened custards and stirred custards.

The first thing you need to figure out is if the custard has starch in it.  Any ingredients like flour, corn starch, arrowroot, etc are starches and lend their thickening power to the custard.  If the ingredient list does contain starch, understand that you will have to fully cook the custard on the stove.  This means that you must bring it to a boil and stir it like a crazy person for about 30 seconds. This is because most starches aren’t completely activated–swollen up and gelatinized–until they reach boiling temperature.  If your recipe calls for starch, make sure you bring it to a boil.  If you’ve ever made pudding that tastes kind of chalky, it’s because you didn’t get it hot enough.

If the ingredient list doesn’t contain starch, the next step is to see decide if the custard is a stirred custard or a baked/still custard.  If you’re making crème brûlée, you’ll be baking the custard in the oven, so it’s a still custard.  If you’re making egg nog or Creme Anglaise or ice cream base, the custard will be fully cooked on the stove top, so it’s a stirred custard.  The procedure for each will be almost identical, but you won’t continue to cook a base for a still custard after you temper in the eggs.

Custards with starch (American-style pudding)

  • Whisk together dairy and half the sugar in a sauce pan.
  • Whisk together the eggs/yolks with the rest of the sugar, salt and dry ingredients, including the starch. If the ingredient list doesn’t contain salt, ignore it and add some anyway.  Some recipes won’t contain eggs.  That’s fine, but you can always add in a yolk or two for richness.
  • Bring dairy mixture up to just below a boil.
  • Add hot dairy, a bit at a time, to the egg mixture, whisking madly.  This brings the temperature of the eggs up gradually and prevents you from scrambling your eggs.
  • Pour everything back into the pot.  Over medium heat, whisk madly until the mixture comes to a boil.  Boil for about 30 seconds.
  • Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer.  If the recipe calls for butter, chopped chocolate and/or an extract or liqueur, add it/them now and whisk in until smooth.

Custards without starch (this goes for curds, too–curds are just citrus based custard, as opposed to dairy-based)

  • Whisk together dairy and half the sugar in a sauce pan.
  • Whisk together eggs/yolks with the rest of the sugar and the salt.  If your ingredient list doesn’t contain salt, add it anyway.
  • Bring dairy (or citrus) mixture up to just below a boil.
  • Add hot dairy/citrus, a bit at a time, to the egg mixture.  Gee, doesn’t all of this sound oddly familiar?
  • At this point, if you’re making a still custard, as for crème brûlée or flan, just strain the mixture, pan it up and bake in a water bath at about 275F.  If you’re making a stirred custard, keep going:
  • Pour the egg mixture back into the pot.  Over medium-lowish heat, stir the custard/curd until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.  This happens at around 160F.  At this point, you’ll want to cool the custard quickly so it won’t curdle.   You can strain it into a metal bowl set in an ice bath and whisk, or you can hold out a portion of the dairy to add back in at the end of cooking.  Your choice, but strain the mixture either way.
  • If you’re making curd, whisk in the butter after straining.

Double Boiler method
You can make a custard or curd in a double boiler.  If you want to use the double boiler method, add everything except the butter to the top pan/metal bowl.  Keep water at a gentle simmer, and whisk constantly until the custard/curd has thickened.  Strain and stir/whisk in butter.  I wouldn’t bother using a double boiler with a starch-thickened custard, though.  The starch helps prevent curdling, so you should be fine cooking over direct heat.  The double boiler method is good for custards that you want to thicken but not boil.

Okay, pop quiz.  I give you an ingredient list, you give me the method you’d use to put it together.

Exhibit A (Anglaise)
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup white sugar
pinch of salt

Exhibit B (Chocolate Pudding)
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated white sugar
3 tablespoons (30 grams) cornstarch
1/3 cup (30 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups (600 ml) whole milk
1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy whipping cream
4 large egg yolks
4 ounces (120 grams) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon (14 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature (cut into small pieces)

Exhibit C (Flan)
2 cups heavy cream
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Pinch salt

Exhibit D
Okay, this one isn’t an exhibit, really,  It’s a question:  Which of the three recipes might you want to use a double boiler for?  Why?

You all did very well today.  Don’t forget to pick up your custard-genius certificate on your way out.

22 Responses to “A Techniques Primer: Custards and Puddings”

  1. Elle April 20, 2009 at 10:23 am #

    What an informative post! I know where to look if I’m having custard troubles.

  2. Katherine April 20, 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    This was a fantastic post. I’m really shy about baking and making custards. I am getting a little braver but after reading this post, I feel I have learned so much. I am printing this up to I can keep it as a reference. Thank you SOOOOOOO much!

  3. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother April 20, 2009 at 2:30 pm #

    Jenni, please email me, I’ve got an idea to share with you.

  4. groovyoldlady April 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    Mmmmm. Chili’s!


  5. Marc @ NoRecipes April 20, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

    Great post! The implied snobbery is why I take issue with the term “Foodie”. Although I haven’t been in years, there was a time when Chili’s was my favourite restaurant… It was a great alternative to dorm food and was just around the corner… I can’t believe I just admitted that!

    • onlinepastrychef April 20, 2009 at 5:48 pm #

      Don’t worry, Marc! Your secret is safe with me. Um, us…. 😉 Yes, it’s funny, as I’ve gotten more and more into the teaching aspect of cooking (mostly via this blog), I’ve had less and less patience with food snobbery. I think food snobbery is one of the barriers that makes home cooks feel intimidated, and I just really don’t want to be a part of that.

    • onlinepastrychef April 21, 2009 at 11:22 am #

      Oh, yes, we have ways of making you talk, Marc! 😆

  6. Tangled Noodle April 20, 2009 at 8:51 pm #

    I made a pudding yesterday – too bad I didn’t wait just one more day (I’ll post about it soon). I was going to use your chocolate pudding recipe from a few posts ago but didn’t for reasons that will be made clear in said future blog entry. In the meantime, I’m saving this page for all my future custard and pudding needs! 😎

  7. Tangled Noodle April 20, 2009 at 8:56 pm #

    Oh! And my two cents on food snobbery: I really have felt more at ease attempting new techniques because of how you’ve presented them in a straightforward manner, free of the sense of ‘haughtiness’ of some cookbooks and magazines that seem to convey the message, “Try this – if you dare, incompetent fool!”

    When it comes to food, my attitude is that there is no such thing as bad food – as long as someone, somewhere finds any value in a particular item and enjoys the act of eating, then it’s all good.

  8. Natasha - 5 Star Foodie April 20, 2009 at 9:03 pm #

    I haven’t really made puddings or custards so this is very informative! Thanks!

  9. dianne April 20, 2009 at 11:26 pm #

    i am so relieved that you don’t smugly smirk, because i am quite fond of Chili’s chicken fajitas … and thank you for not tapping your foot at me – i am a slow learner … but there is NO WAY that i am going to publish my answers to today’s quiz … i would rather remain silent and thought a fool than to open my mouth and remove all doubt (who said that? Abraham Lincoln??)

  10. mikky April 21, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    thanks for sharing this… 🙂

  11. lynn April 21, 2009 at 11:16 am #

    i’d like to tell you that i love your blog. i got to know your blog thru petitechef and i’m linking yours to mine, i hope you don’t mind…and probably you could do the same? you’re very informative keep it up!

  12. Chef E April 21, 2009 at 9:30 pm #

    I get the same thing, because I have worked as a chef, they feel they cannot live up to my standards…do I have standards :)?

    Thank you for this, even chefs have to revisit things they do not really focus on, or haven’t visited in a while, so thank you ma’am! Right now I am a ‘still custard’ from my long day…

  13. Daily Spud April 23, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    I now feel prepared to do battle with custard and puddin’ and even crème pâtissière. Yay me!

  14. Sophie April 26, 2009 at 3:26 am #

    MMMM…Thanks so much for your wonderful & interesting tips!! Now, how can we fail?

  15. P.L.W. March 25, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Whew. I read this too late. I have trouble making lemon meringue pie which is trouble because it is my husband’s absolute favorite. It is the lemon pudding part of the pie. I just made one (for his birthday, no less!) and it is more like lemon meringue soup. It is already cooked, sadly. Very sadly. Is there anything AT ALL I can do to fix the lemon part? I will deconstruct the pie if necessary. When I put the lemon custard part in the oven, it was only a trifle soft and I thought it would thicken a bit in the oven. NOT. Please help. I am desperate. Is there anything AT ALL I can do to fix the lemon part?

    • onlinepastrychef March 25, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

      Hi, Trish:) Without seeing your recipe, I can only make some general suggestions. If the lemon filling is thickened with cornstarch, you can always mix another tablespoon of cornstarch into a tablespoon each of lemon juice and water, pour everything back into a pan and bring back to a boil. Strain and pour back into the pie shell. The addition of more starch should help to firm things up.

      You could also try blooming 3/4 teaspoons of unflavored gelatin per cup of filling in a mixture of lemon juice and water (again, 2 Tablespoons should be sufficient). Once the gelatin is all swelled up, melt it over low heat until it is clear. Then, pour your filling into a pan, heat until warm and then whisk in the gelatin mixture. Strain and pour back into the crust. Refrigerate to set up.

      I hope that helps. And, if all else fails, deconstructing is good, too:) If you get a sec, send me your recipe and technique so maybe I can be more helpful. Good luck, Trish!

  16. P.L.W. March 29, 2010 at 11:01 pm #

    Dear Jennie,

  17. P.L.W. March 29, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    Dear Jenni,
    It worked like a charm!! This is a good thing because my husband said he was going to throw it out. Phooey. Now we are both happy. When I get a minute I will send you the recipe for the custard part of the pie and you can see what’s up.
    Thanks a million!

  18. P.L.W. March 30, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    Here is the lemon custard:
    6 egg yolks
    1c sugar
    1/4C cornstarch
    1/8t salt
    1 1/2C cold water
    1T lemon zest
    1/2C lemon juice
    2T unsalted butter
    I think the devil is in the cooking of the custard. Here are the directions:
    Mix sugar, cornstarch, salt and water in large, non-reactive saucepan. Bring to simmer over medium heat, whisking occasionally at beginning and more frequently as mixture begins to thicken. When mixture starts to simmer and turn translucent, whisk in egg yolks, two at a time. Whisk in zest, then lemon juice and then butter. Bring mixture to a good simmer, whisking constantly.
    Here are my issues:
    *How cold is cold water? Why cold?
    *Why the yolks straight into the pan and not the reverse or some sort of tempering?
    *NOWHERE does the recipe say the consistency expected of the filling, nor does it give a time range for cooking.
    Hence, SOUP.
    The filling tastes good, but I have never had it come out right, so any suggestions are welcome.
    Thank you so much for your help.

  19. P.L.W. March 30, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    P.S. the recipe is from American Classics by Cook’s Illustrated, usually a pretty reliable source.

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