Chances are, you’ve already successfully whipped up a custard without realizing it. Do you stir a little cream into your eggs with a fork before scrambling them? Hey, you’re technically making a custard and taking it a step further. Have you ever whisked up a few eggs and a cup of milk before pouring it over some bread cubes for a strata? That’s a custard too.
As the inimitable Alton Brown explains it, a custard is simply “any cooked combination of egg and liquid.” It’s the act of whisking eggs into another wet substance (usually milk or cream), and then using heat to bind the clever little proteins in the egg with the liquid and fat together into a smooth, softly-textured solid.
So what else can you can make with custard? Oh, how about…
- ice cream
- pots de crème
- crème brulée, crème caramel, and flan
- bread puddings galore
- old-fashioned rice pudding
- quiches, stratas, and fluffy frittatas
- citrus curds, like my one true love, lemon curd
- pie fillings like chocolate cream, fruit chiffon and sugar-cream Hoosier pie
The baked-custard preparation is pretty simple to accomplish, as seen in the strata mentioned above, for instance, or for a quiche: Crack half a dozen eggs into bowl, add a cup of milk or half & half (oh, decadence) along with some salt and pepper, whisk or blend well, and pour over your choice of vegetables, cheese and other tasty bits in a blind-baked tart shell before popping into the oven for 45 minutes at 400 degrees F.
The stovetop method, usually found when prepping custards on the dessert side of the spectrum like crème brulée and ice cream, has two crucial steps that you’ve got to follow for custard greatness. But it’s a technique that takes just once to learn, and this recipe is a perfect introduction.
The following vanilla ice cream recipe, from The Ultimate Ice Cream Book by Bruce Weinstein, uses the basic techniques of scalding and tempering to create a custard base on the stovetop. It also uses whole eggs instead of multiple egg yolks, which eases my guilt about sending excess egg whites down the drain.
Scalding is just another word for heating the milk before mixing it with the eggs. The warm liquid brings the temperature of the entire mixture up more quickly, which means less time on the burner/in the oven (if you’re doing a flan/brulée), and less of a chance to overcook the whole thing.
Tempering the eggs (pictured below) is a very simple process akin to drizzling oil into a vinaigrette, making it easier to incorporate two ingredients that would otherwise hate each other and create a nasty substance if you dumped them in all at once. In this case, by dribbling the hot milk slowly and whisking quickly, you’re evenly increasing the temperature across the board so the eggs won’t scramble.
Vanilla Ice Cream
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Makes 1 quart
- 1 2/3 cups milk
- 2 large eggs
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
In a large bowl, whisk the sugar and eggs together until they’re thickened, light in color and no longer gritty. Stir in the flour and salt.
Bring the milk just to a bare simmer in a small saucepan, then temper the egg mixture by pouring the milk into the eggs in a thin, steady stream while whisking vigorously. I find it easiest to pour the warm milk back into the measuring cup before drizzling it into the bowl (as pictured above) to avoid the dreaded “pan dribble” where you lose half your liquid running down the side of the saucepan.
Pour the entire egg/milk combo into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 10-15 minutes without allowing it to come to a boil. Like making lemon curd, you’ll notice a slow but steady change in the thickness and texture of the liquid, from a loose and sloshy translucence to an opaque custard that feels like stirring melted ice cream. The video below shows the transition:
You’ll also notice your wooden spoon start to “skid” across the bottom of the pan as you reach the custard stage, notifying you that the eggs are doing the protein emulsion dance and the bottom of the pan is developing a thin layer of cooked custard. Don’t panic—when you feel this, you’ll know you’re about a minute away from doneness.
Pour the hot custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl, allow to cool for 10 minutes, then stir in the cream and vanilla. Refrigerate overnight before freezing in your ice cream machine according to manufacturer instructions.