Baked Custard: Easier Than Pie

baked custardVelvety, creamy custard is a rich treat.

Custard traces its history back to the Romans, who discovered that eggs would bind things and firm up when cooked. They made all kinds of fillings using custards and flans, from sweet to savory (eel flan, anyone?). As the Romans travelled, they took their cooking customs with them and so spread the different types of custards that we have today, the saucy kinds added to pastries or trifles to the firm baked custard desserts. It’s generally agreed that the dessert custards we know today came from the Middle Ages and were perfected in the last two centuries as ovens and cooking techniques have evolved and become more sophisticated.

Before I jump into the basic recipe for baking a custard, you may want to check out Vechey’s Effortless Gourmet, because not only does she have great ideas for meals, she has a Starfruit Blackberry Topping recipe as part of a dessert course. That sounds like something that would be an amazing accompaniment to a basic baked custard.

The Basics

What makes a custard, well, custardy are eggs. It’s possible to add things to cream like flour or cornstarch to create a thickened sauce but if eggs are absent then it isn’t really a custard. Whole eggs and milk are heated until thickened. It is important, though, to not just let the eggs cook, because then it becomes a rubbery mess, like scrambled eggs in cream, and that’s not a custard either.

Equipment

Custard can be made with typical cooking implements, but you will need to make sure you have a deep enough baking dish and some small ramekins or bowls that will sit in a hot water bath, or bain-marie, as you bake it. If you don’t have enough small bowls, then a one-dish custard is possible, provided you can fit the one dish into another for the hot water bath. For a one-dish custard, you’ll need to increase the cooking time by about a half hour.

The reason for this hot water bath is to keep the milk from burning as it cooks. If it was merely put in a pan and baked, the mixture nearest the edges would cook and burn faster than the milk in the center, resulting in a creamy mess. The bain-marie will cook the custard gently without letting it heat up too quickly.

Despite the fact there are these technical needs it is actually very simple to make a baked custard.

Basic Recipe

Here’s a basic recipe for a delicious baked custard.

You’ll need:

  • 3 eggs
  • 2½ cups of milk, preferably whole, for that creamy goodness. Hopefully you weren’t expecting something low fat here. If you do need a non-dairy substitute, almond milk works, too!
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 1 tsp. of vanilla extract
  • a dash of salt

And some nutmeg, if you like.

Pretty light on the ingredients, no? And it’s also pretty easy to prepare.

Preheat your oven to 350º. Lightly grease your ramekins (or the tiny bowls you’re using) and arrange them in the baking pan so that they are not touching each other. This is the set up for the hot water bath I mentioned before.

Heat your milk in a pot on the stove so that it’s very hot, but not boiling. You want to make sure that you aren’t burning your milk so don’t just turn it on and walk away, keep an eye on it. When it starts to steam, that means it’s ready.

While the milk is heating, go ahead and mix your eggs and the rest of the ingredients in a bowl (except the nutmeg, that will go last). Beat the mixture, but don’t make it frothy, you just want to mix it up thoroughly.

Once that’s mixed together and the milk is hot and steamy, you’ll pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, slowly, stirring while you do.

Once that’s all mixed, you’ll want to put your pan onto the oven rack (pulled out of course), so you can do the next couple steps without sloshing stuff around.

You’ll take the egg mixture and pour it into the bowls in the pan in equal amounts for each bowl. You can sprinkle the nutmeg on top.

Take very hot water (from the tap is ok) and pour it into the pan that’s holding the ramekins and fill it till there’s about ½ inch from the tops of the custard bowls. Don’t pour the water into them! This is why you want to set up the pan on the rack first, so you won’t need to move all that liquid around, risking potential spillage or mixing.

Once that’s set up, you will cook them for 35-45 minutes. Check them and if a knife can be inserted and removed into the center of one of the custards without anything sticking to it, you’ll know it’s done. Take them out of the water, or else the temperature of it will keep cooking the custard. Set them aside and let them cool.

Et voila! You can serve them warm or refrigerate them for later.

If you’d like a few more pointers, the recipes I adapted this from have some excellent “expert” tips for future custards, too

While we don’t have many custard specific classes here at Udemy, but there are a few cooking classes. You might get a kick out of Cook Like a Man. It presents a tasty menu, but sadly has no dessert portion for the class. Combine a creamy, delicious baked custard with his offerings of scampi and jambalaya, and you’ve got a guaranteed dinner to remember.

If desserts are your thing and you have a hankering to learn how to make more sweets, we have here a cooking baking course and a chocolate making course. Learn the Pastry Arts, cleverly subtitled The World of Cookies, has a whopping 13 cookie recipes included in the class, from checkerboard cookies to linzer cookies.

The Beginner’s Course in Chocolate Making covers everything from what to shop for to how to prepare and store chocolate. With more courses promised, it looks like it will have a good line up of how-to’s in store.