A dessert that is ever so eternal and universal and that which is as much a stuff of fancy as it is of commonplace humility, custard is what makes for the perfect after dinner indulgence in rich sweetness or can even be the evening treat you desire to satiate the cravings of your insanely sweet tooth. Eggy and delicious and pretty- and therefore dare we say- ‘wholesome’, a serving of the dainty bowl of custard comes with a culinary appeal that is rested adequately on all premises of what makes for ‘good food’, whether you like to revel in the comfort of its nicety and warmth or seek to find solace instead in its many layers of chilled relaxation, you will likely taste it all within the rim of a nice, set bowlful of this decadence. Needless to say, a treat so irresistible and drool worthy is not something that arose out of the wondrous serendipity of a single day of fortunes doling out too fondly sugary servings of their own but rather comes with as rich and distinctive a history of its own within which nestles also layers and layers of variations and types and kinds of it, each of which tastes uniquely delicious and yet smacks of that rich, sinful, velvety essence in flavor and aroma that makes custard the beloved classic dessert that it continues to be even in a world abounding with sweet treats that are as sophisticated as can be.
Like so much of the good stuff that today abounds the world in all their worthy elegance and beauty, this stir of the custard too has its roots reaching to the realms of the Rome of ancient times. Finding mention among the pages of the Roman cookbook Apicius are certain custard recipes that which explores this primarily egg and milk based preparation not just as a dessert but also as a savoury treat. In the period that followed, through the years of the Middle Ages, custards emerged to be particularly popular an item of food, more so of indulgence, as custard tarts were relished by all and sundry across Europe and that from which the now more amalgamating dish came to take its name. Notwithstanding its European roots however, right from Roman ancientries to a range of variations that dominated preferences across the continent over the centuries, and of course its very prominent French derived nomenclature, custards are today a much loved treat everywhere in the world and makes for a favorite pick of many with its minimalist but not too simplistic essence.
It might be easy to believe that this dish that which is possible to whip up today in the matter of a few minutes, all thanks to the many mixes and powders readily available in supermarkets and convenience stores, makes for a rather laidback decadent treat to sum up. But the traditional, and often the worthiest ever method of making a custard by whisking and stirring it patiently over a slow fire as you let the eggs and the milk and the sugar all combine through in just the right proportions to arrive at just the perfect consistency, heavy yet dripping, allowing for a coagulation of sorts that which is the element that makes custards sticky and thick and rich like we all like it so much is indeed a culinary skill to master over time. By no means an easy recipe for a novice even when it seems all so simple and sometimes affording an error even from more seasoned hands, custards might be the serving of comfort we can’t wait to dig in but behind all those slurps of satisfaction is a science that is no less monumental than the ones that go into making of other things apparently more technical and less soulful.
Despite all the fuss we made out of this whole ‘real’ custard thing, that which only proves our allegiance to all things not just tasty but also authentically so, at its most basic, the modern iteration of what is meant by a custard is open to explorations. Cream custards, confectioner’s custards and set custards make for a wider diversification of the dish in its present day preparation within which rests a whole long inexhaustive world of custard dishes, both sweet and savoury, a few of which we set out to discover in this ‘custarddendum’ for a richly appetising and toothsome experience of the custard delight in all its associated- and exotic flavours-
A French dessert that incorporates the richness of the custardy essence with the characteristic flavour and crunch of caramel, creme brulee is a sweet treat relished globally. The thick egg custard is prepared over a fire or baked, after which it is topped off with sugar that is made to caramelize or even sometimes by mixing the egg yolks and sugar together before being baked as individual portions for a preparation of deliciousness that is traditionally a vanilla flavoured luscious treat.
Like so many of the many amazing foods that Japan has offered to the world is also its custard variation called chawanmushi. Quite unique not just in its savoury essence but also in being a proper component dish of a meal, this is an egg mixture flavored with soy sauce, dashi, and mirin even as a range of additional ingredients such as shiitake mushrooms, kamaboko, yuri-ne (lily root), ginkgo and boiled shrimp elevate this particular custard variant into a really filling, nutritious serving of deliciousness. Cooked by placing all the ingredients into a tea-cup-like container which is also the reason why chawanmushi or literally ‘tea cup steam’ is the name of this custard dish, this Japanese appetiser is a delicate delight, rendered also unique in its consumption with spoons, a method very non- typical of Japanese culinary customs.
A German custard preparation, but again with disputed French leanings, Bavarian cream is a relatively fuss free version of the dessert that we have our hearts set completely on. Thickened with gelatin which serves also to set the custard inside molds while chilling, this recipe makes also for an even richer treat with the incorporation of whipped cream into its creamy folds. Probably invented by internationally renowned chef, Frenchman Marie-Antoine Carême sometime in the 1700s, the dessert acquired its name only in the next century after the German region of Bavaria making it therefore a true influence of the culinary elements of both the European nations.
Along the trails of Italy’s picturesque Piedmont region simmers and froths a rather unique custard that has all the elements to have you intoxicated on every aspect of its delectableness. Zabaglione or Zabaione is a classic Italian dessert that is a custard all right but one that you can rather drink out of a glass over scooping out from a bowl. Made by mixing egg yolks and sugar on a double boiler with some sweet wine making for the atypical third ingredient in this feathery light serving of all things delicious, this is a 15th century recipe that might remind you of the Christmas time delight of eggnogs but is in fact a more versatile preparation that you can relish any time of the year you want for a taste of custard that is unlike any of its other exotic variations.
Custard and caramel come together to sum up another dessert that is no less delectable than what we have already explored before in the form of the very flair-ful creme brulee. French again in origins, but less exclusively this time as the dessert is attributed to also other European regions like Spain, Italy and Portugal, this European classic differs from the exclusive French specialty in that the custard layer here is topped by a clear layer of caramel sauce making for a really jiggly and creamy and soft serving to dig your spoons into. Generally cooked in a water bath whether in the oven or on a stove top to ensure that the custard cooks without disrupting the ‘flow’ of the prepared caramel sugar syrup over which it is poured, creme caramel or more conveniently caramel custard is the perfect option for those who like the flavor of caramel to titillate their taste buds without letting the crunch come in their own quiet ways of relishing the best things in life.
While custards are most often served chilled, there is one particular custard that should definitely be enjoyed only when it is absolutely frozen, as suggested by its very name. Frozen custard is a cold dessert very similar to ice cream but unlike the latter this custard treat needs to have egg yolks as its region of stemming. With Milwaukee, Wisconsin having been hailed as the ‘unofficial frozen custard capital of the world for long’, America seems to be the inventor of this trailblazing icy cool treat that is made with eggs and cream and sugar. Thick and dense as custards ought to be, yet soft and smooth like ice creams need to be, frozen custard perhaps is one of the most loved custard based desserts gorged over anywhere in the world.
From the region of Catalonia in Spain hails a custard that is very similar to the more famous creme brulee but which indeed perhaps predates its more illustrious counterpart. In fact, crema catalana is one of the oldest Spanish desserts differing from the French preparation in being a custard that is made of milk rather than cream and is therefore typically thickened with cornflour. Very aromatic in its flavourings of lemon zest and cinnamon, crema catalana is more ‘authentically’ known as crema cremada or burnt cream within the ambit of Catalan cuisine. Whatever may be the name though, the taste of this dessert is such that sparks at once a common realisation of a really delectable bite into sweet heaven.
With the caramel and custard pairing so much a hit so as to be the base of some of the globally most popular custard desserts ever, it is no surprise that nations outside of Europe have also been long relishing their native take on this heavenly combination. One such variant happens to be the Filipino classic leche flan, a heavier version of the creme caramel since it includes a lot more egg yolks with also the additional richness of condensed milk. Different also is the mode of cooking since leche flan is generally steamed over open fires in traditional oval-shaped tin molds known as llaneras. However baked variations exist as well but most prominently in the form of pastries like the traditional Filipino flan cake or custard cake. Even steamed leche flans can be molded into other authentic Filipino desserts like the steamed puto flan cupcakes.
Leite de creme
Translating literally as cream milk, leite de creme is the Portuguese take on the custard dessert and bears close resemblance to creme brulee even when it is not wholly the same. Cooked on an open flame is this classic Portuguese take on the ubiquitous dessert of the custard world which though would be more identical with the creme catalana in its similar flavor profiling of the lemon zest and cinnamon as well as the milk base thickened with the addition of cornflour.
With one really unexpected ingredient marking its presence in an exploration of custard based desserts, the pumpkin pie perhaps is the most intriguing feature on this list. A dessert pie no doubt but with a spiced pumpkin based custard filling, this is a strictly American dessert that most probably started out as savoury but soon adapted to the sweet palate, with however the spice quotient of it still intact. Softened pumpkin pulp is mixed with eggs and sweetened condensed milk, sugar and the pumpkin pie spice mix and then baked in a pie shell for a treat that is so common a presence on festive menus of Thanksgiving and related fall and winter celebrations throughout the States.
In being the origin of custard, as far as its nomenclature is concerned, custard tarts are among the most traditional of these egg based desserts that spans their saga of origin from Portugal to France to the United Kingdom. Medieval versions called for shortcrust and puff pastry case filled with a mixture of cream, milk, or broth, with eggs, sweetened and spiced, even as essentially savoury ingredients like meat would also sometimes be incorporated into the recipes. Modern day variations are similar at their most basic, however versions exist that call for certain tweaks and twists in the recipe leading to a creation of such flavors that make for a whole new custard dish altogether.
Cremeschnitte (Custard Slice)
After custard pies and custard tarts it’s time for custard slices to make its presence felt in this custardy list. More ‘properly’ known as Cremeschnitte, this is an European specialty that is popular across many countries in the continent as some variation of a custard cream topped puff pastry dessert. Global versions are the Polish Napoleonka, the krempita or cream pie of the Balkans, Montenegro’s Kotorska pašta, Slovenia’s kremna rezina or the ambiguous mille-feuille, all of which are some form of a single sheet or multiple layers of puff pastry topped or filled with a thick, dense custard preparation, making therefore for a custard and cream based cake dessert that comes across as really decadent slices of flavourful texture to bite into.
Pastel de nata
A Portuguese recipe, pastel de nata is a egg custard tart pastry dusted with cinnamon that has been in existence since at least the eighteenth century. Created by the Catholic monks as a means of using leftover egg yolks, this popular national dish is today also one one of Portugal’s Seven Wonders of Gastronomy. Presently a specialty of the country’s Belem region, this is a custard dessert based on milk rather than cream making for a rich but light still treat that complements particularly well the tart’s crispy lightness as well.