Tag Archives: making custard

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.

Have You Heard About My Temper?

25 Feb
What stands between you and creme brule?  The Challenge of Tempering

What stands between you and creme brule? The Challenge of Tempering

Well, my throat is sore from all the yelling, and my shoulder is sore from all the sword-wielding, but all in all, I’d say yesterday was a Good Day.  For me.  Perhaps not so much, for those two erstwhile k-niggits.  Ah, well–balance in all things….

Today, I want to get off the dusty field of battle and back into a nice, bright kitchen.  So, let’s all just go back inside together, shall we?  Beth, from At the Very Yeast (ha!), challenged me to tackle tempering eggs, as the prospect of adding hot liquid to cold eggs can strike terror into the hearts of even experienced cooks.    That sentence was a bit awkward.  I blame it on all the Physical Exersion yesterday.  Right, then, onward we go!  Beth, I accept your challenge.  You didn’t have to smack me with that glove, but whatever.  I get that you were just hyped up by all the swashbuckling and Whatnot.

There are a couple uses for the word temper in the pastry kitchen.  One is for chocolate, and it describes the process of heating, cooling and reheating chocolate so that all of the different fats in cocoa butter (which all have slightly different melting points) behave themselves and set properly, giving you a nice, shiny end product with a good snap.  This is not the tempering of which I currently speak.  Today, I’m talking eggs, folks.

Eggs are rather finicky creatures.  They are also very necessary in the pastry kitchen for all sorts of reasons–thickening, structure, leavening, emulsifying, etc.  But sometimes, they don’t want to play nicely.  What’s their problem?  They are very temperature sensitive.   Their proteins, which are largely found in the whites (albumin), begin to coagulate, or cook, or denature, at about 140F.  The yolks (vitellus!) start to set up at a somewhat higher temperature, around 150-155F.  Eggs will be all cooked–whites and yolks–by about 160 degrees, F.

Eggs enjoy being cooked slowly.  That’s why they are quite happy in a water bath, so they never have to be above 212F, thankyouverymuch.  If slowly and steadily pushed up Thermal Hill by ox cart, the proteins will set up all smooth and happy.  If, however, you strap them to a rocket car and shoot them up Thermal Hill, the proteins will set up so tightly that they will squeeze out all the liquid and you will end up at the top of Thermal Hill with a rocket car full of rubbery scrambled eggs sitting in a pool of sad, cloudy water.  This is not what we are going for.

Now, I know we all love our flashy rocket cars, but really, no good ever comes of them.  So, when you want to add your finicky eggs (the ones that like to coagulate slowly at low temperatures) to a near-boiling pot of milk, cream and sugar (and maybe some starch) so you can make pudding, ice cream or Something Else Yummy, you have to think Ox Cart.  And tempering, is the ox cart you need.

Did you guys ever have to work out those problems in high school science where they’d say something like, “You have 1500ml of liquid at 100C and 27ml liquid at 20C.  What will the temperature be if you mix them both together?” And then you have to Do Math and figure it out and you really don’t care because you’re hungry.  The point, if I have one, is that if one of those liquids is not eggs, you can most likely send one liquid by rocket car into the other and all will be well.  If one of those liquids happens to be composed mostly of proteins, then Allowances must be made.  That’s right, you have to pull out the ox cart.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the Rules for Tempering.  They tell you to pour a little of the boiling hot stuff into the cold eggs while whisking and then pour everything back into the pot.  That’s pretty much it, in broad strokes, but it can still be a little bit daunting.  I know you have Questions.  How can I whisk madly and pour at the same time?  How do I keep my bowl from spinning around if I can’t hold it still?  What if my glasses steam up?  How much of the hot stuff do I need to add to my eggs before they will cooperate?

A revelation for Question 1:  I used to have the same question.  My wrists aren’t strong enough to hold a huge pan of boiling dairy in one hand and whisk with the other.  And that, friends, is when I had a Light Bulb Moment.  How about using a ladle?!  There you go–dip in one small ladle of hot liquid at a time while whisking madly with the other hand.  No ladle?  Use a 1/4 cup measure or something.

A Neat Trick for Question 2:  Okay, you have four options here.  Option 1 is to whisk faster than the bowl spins.  Not very practical, I admit.  Option 2 is to get a bowl that has some sort of rubberized bottom.  They make those.  They sell them for kind of a lot.  Option 3 is to get some of that puffy stuff for lining china cabinets that comes on rolls next to the contact paper at the store.  Just cut a square of it and set your bowl on it.  Option 4 is actually my favorite (when I’m being an adult.  Otherwise, Option 1 is always a challenge.  And I enjoy a good challenge.)  Take a kitchen towel, get it wet, wring it out and then make a little nest for your bowl to sit in.    Just place the towel in a circle, like an Ouroboros on the counter, and put the bowl inside.  Now it’s all nestled down and won’t go anywhere.  And if you happen to get a little overzealous with your whisking, whatever whisks out of the bowl will land on the towel.  Yay!

Question 3 doesn’t even count anymore.  And if you don’t wear glasses, it was never a concern.  See Answer 1.

There is no Definitive Answer 4:  How much hot liquid you need to add depends on how many eggs you have.  That is not a cop out; I’m not done yet.  You know that you want the eggs to be hot, and you know you have to do it slowly.  Here’s what I do.  If I have say, 4 eggs, that’s maybe 2/3 cup by volume.  I’d probably start by adding an ounce or so of the hot liquid, whisking the whole time.  Then, I’d add a little more and a little more, feeling the side of the bowl.  Once the eggs are decidedly hot, I’d pour them all into the pot.  With the heat turned off, and whisking all the while.  I honestly never have measured how much hot liquid I add to my eggs.  If I had to guess, I’d say probably about twice as much as the amount of egg.  And no, I don’t always add all of the hot liquid to the eggs–once my eggs are hot, in they go.  Not just warm.  Hot.

Why I Don’t Stress Over Tempering
It’s an ox cart.  It’s a means of getting something from point A to point B (or temperature A to temperature B) slowly.  The eggs don’t care what the ox cart looks like.  They just care that they get taken up Thermal Hill at a Sedate pace.  Tempering is a technique, not a scientific formula.

Ways To Take Out Some Insurance When Tempering
1)Add a portion of your sugar to the eggs.  I don’t care if the recipe doesn’t tell you to–it’s okay.  I promise.  Whisk them together very well until nice and creamy.  I’m sure you’ve heard that sugar can start to cook your eggs.  This is chemically a true statement, so make sure that you really whisk the two together and then don’t leave them just sitting there for too long.  I always whisk at least a few times every minute or so while I’m waiting for my dairy to heat up enough.  (I almost wrote “…diary heat up enough!”  Now I am amused).  Of course, you could always wait until your dairy is hot before you whisk the two together, but you guys know about my issues with planning.  Adding the room temperature sugar will raise the temperature of your eggs slightly, which is a good thing.  The sugar will also help to get in the way of all those proteins and keep them from bumping into each other and coagulating too readily.

2)Make sure your eggs aren’t refrigerator cold.  Remember, eggs like a slow ride, so take them out of the fridge at least half an hour before you’re going to use them to give them a chance to warm up a bit.  You can call this a pre-temper, if you want.  But you don’t have to.

3)Strain the finished product through a fine mesh strainer.  Sometimes, even when you’ve done a Great Job, a little bit of the eggy protein will decide to coagulate anyway, just out of sheer meanness.  That’s why I always strain.  Always.  Then, when the strainer comes up empty, I can feel Smarter Than Eggs.  (And if the strainer has little bits of egg in it, I can rinse it out quickly and pretend it never happened).

A Thing I Discovered By Very Happy/Sad Accident
Once your eggs are cooked, they are Cooked.  By that, I mean that, if you are making a product that will need more cooking in order to set up, such as a flan or creme brule, the rule is that you have to cool off your tempered egg/dairy mixture quickly, before the eggs completely coagulate.  If you do not.  You will find yourself Close to Service with a Very Lot of ramekins of creme brule that have been in the oven in a water bath for 2 hours and are still just pools of thick liquid covered with a skin.  I’m telling you, if you’ve ever had a creme brule not set up for you in the oven, it’s probably because your initial mixture was way too thick (the eggs were already completely cooked).  So, for Items to Be Further Cooked, please have an ice bath ready and waiting so you can cool things down immediately.

Items that will not be cooked further, such as pastry cream, ice cream base and creme Anglaise need to be cooked more after the tempering.  It probably won’t take long, but continue to stir your tempered egg/dairy mixture until it either boils for a minute (pastry cream, pudding) or until it coats the back of a spoon.  The magic number on a thermometer is 180F.  And then cool it in an ice bath.  Immediately.  I’ve seen a 12 quart batch of ice cream base turn from perfect to scrambled eggs while just sitting there.  Nasty old carry over cooking.  Sometimes we hates you, we does.

Okay, I think that’s it.  Thanks for hanging until the bitter end.  This was a long one.  And thanks Beth, for smacking me with the Glove of Challenge!

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