Custard And Puddings

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CUSTARD AND PUDDINGS. Custard and puddings are words that describe several important sweet foods. The strict culinary definition of custard is eggs and milk mixed and baked, or stirred over gentle heat until thickened. Used in desserts, pies, pastries, and as sauces, it is well known in European countries and in cultures influenced by them.

After this, there are significant differences between custards and puddings in North America and the United Kingdom. Currently, in North America, pudding, and often egg custard, is made up from a flavored cornstarch mix to give creamy-textured desserts, and is eaten alone or used as pie filling. Mixes are also known elsewhere, for instance, in Germany, Central Europe, and Southeast Asia. In Britain, pudding mix is unknown, but a similar product, custard powder, is found in most kitchens. It is vanilla flavored and used mostly to make a sauce for puddings. Puddings are a complex subject in English cookery. The word "pudding" is used for numerous sweet dishessome crisp, some cake-like, some soft and smooth, some like plum pudding. They have no convenient overall definition, but sweetness and the presence of flour or other cereal is important, and they are essential to a proper dinner. Pudding is also used as a collective name for the dessert itself, and applied to special groups of savory foods, not discussed here.

In scientific terms, cornstarch puddings are starch gels, and egg-and-milk custards are protein gels. To achieve their creamy texture, old-fashioned cornstarch pudding mixes and British custard powder must be brought to the boil. This gelatinizes the starch: the granules of which it is composed swell and some long-chain starch molecules migrate out, making the liquid thick and viscous. When this cools, it becomes gel in which the starch molecules form a network, enmeshing the water. Instant pudding mixtures rely on chemically modified starches that gelatinize without heating. Flavors of pudding mixes are limited only by technology and the tastes of consumers; almond, vanilla, chocolate, coconut, caramel, butterscotch, and lemon are considered old favorites.

Egg-based custards require gentle cooking. A standard recipe is one cup milk, scalded, mixed with two eggs and two tablespoons sugar, poured into a dish or a pie shell and baked at an oven temperature of about 350°F (180°C). During baking, the egg proteins coagulate to become a firm but tender gel (milk contains naturally occurring salts that aid this process). Alternatively, the mixture is cooked in a double boiler on the stove top to make a boiled custard. This is a confusing name, as the temperature of the custard must not rise above 189193°F (8790°C) or it curdles and the texture is spoiled. Richer custards require cream or high proportions of egg yolk.

Custard or pudding recipes that involve both cornstarch (or flour) and eggs are also known; crème pâtissière (pastry cream) is based on this principle. These are heated to boiling, but do not curdle because the starch stabilizes the egg proteins. Other special types of custard dessert, such as the decoratively molded bavaroise (Bavarian cream) rely on gelatin to hold a firm shape. In the tropics, cow's milk is replaced with that of water buffaloes, or by coconut milk. Some Chinese custards have a sugar syrup base, and the Japanese make savory chawan mushi using dashi stock as the liquid. Vanilla is the classic haute cuisine flavoring for custards, but the English use nutmeg on baked custards, the Spanish and Portuguese flavor with lemon and cinnamon, and the Chinese with fresh ginger.

In the complex history of custards and puddings, mixes are a relatively recent invention. Convenience was a factor in their development over time, but they must also have resonated with ideas about soft milky desserts from previous centuries. To disentangle these, one has to look at the European history of such dishes.

Baked egg and milk custards are of ancient origin; a Roman recipe of this type survives. The combination was also liked in the Middle Ages, when pastry was used to contain the mixture. The word "custard" comes from crustade, meaning a single-crust pie. Sugar, spices, vine fruit, almonds, and ground meat were added to custards. Little distinction was made between sweet and savory foods until the seventeenth century (the idea of a savory custard containing meat has survived into the twenty-first century as quiche Lorraine.) Possets, warm drinks of eggs, cream, wine or ale, sweetened and spiced, were also made. They were popular in the seventeenth century, and may have influenced ideas about custard as a dessert sauce, as well as being ancestors of eggnogs.

With or without pastry, custards were popular in eighteenth-century Europe. In England, rich ones flavored with almonds, pistachios, or orange flower water were called creams. Lemon cheese, a mixture of lemon juice and rind, butter, sugar and eggsalmost a milkless custardwas popular for tartlets, as was egg custard. Custards also acquired a new role as a base for ice creams, which later became important in North America.

Elsewhere, elegant custard desserts developed, such as the egg yolk and cream crème brûlée, with a crust of caramel sugar, and petits pots de crème, cooked in little cups or ramekins (itself a Flemish word which originally meant 'little cream'). Custards cooked in molds lined with caramel sugarcrème caramel, Spanish leche flan later became cliches of restaurant cookery in the twentieth century.

The history of English puddings is obscure, but sixteenth century versions seem to have been sausage-like, with meat and cereal fillings, ancestors of suet and plum puddings. Early eighteenth-century recipes included boiled custard puddings and quaking puddings of egg, cream, and flour. Both types were wrapped in cloths and boiled. These were all staple foods, as was hasty pudding, hot milk with flour stirred in to thicken it. Sweet baked puddings in pastry-lined dishes became fashionable, too; a custard done this way was sometimes called a custard pudding. Other recipes used fruit, nuts, vegetables such as carrots, or sweetened rice, barley, or sago with milk, cream, and eggs. Similar cereal mixtures with milk, sugar, and eggs were known elsewhere in Europe.

In early nineteenth-century America, ideas about custard and puddings were probably little different than those of the English. One influence at this time was the availability of easy-to-use starches such as arrowroot, tapioca, and potato flour, which gave a pleasing transparent appearance, and were used for invalid food. The critical development was the extraction of cornstarch in 1842 in New Jersey; by 1850, food-grade starch was being produced. Secondly, in Birmingham, England, in 1844 a pharmacist named Alfred Bird devised custard powder, a flavored starch mix, for his wife who was fond of custard but allergic to eggs. It is unclear if he used cornstarch (at that point, mostly used in laundries) or another type such as arrowroot or sago. Custard powder soon became popular in Britain.

American housewives continued to make puddings with cornstarch, milk, and eggs, using chocolate, vanilla, or fruit as flavors. Cooks also found that cornstarch "stretched" an inadequate egg supply and, added to custard, made it more stable. Recipes increased in number, and flavors increasedcaramel, lemon, almondrecalling custards and puddings of other traditions and centuries.

Convenience puddings appeared in the mid-1920s, when the Jell-O Company introduced a chocolate mix for use in institutions. Surprisingly, in view of the move toward convenience foods, ordinary consumers had to wait until 1934 until they could buy a similar product, sold as Walter Baker's dessert. Although the British used starch mixes for cold-molded blancmanges, they never took to pudding mixes. In contrast, in North America, other flavors soon appeared and the mixes were also marketed as pie fillings. Instant mixes came onto the market in the 1950s.

By this time, the defining characteristics of pudding seem to have emerged as softness and sweetness, echoing custards, batter, and milk puddings. Speed was also important, perhaps influenced, by the idea of hasty pudding, to which cornstarch puddings bear some resemblance when reduced to basic principles. Puddings and custards also converged as cornstarch mixes were increasingly uses in pies. "Cream" pies have picked up elements of the sweetness and softness of custard and acquired a name associated with it, while maintaining a link, through cornstarch, with the cereal element so important in puddings.

Nutritionally, a standard egg custard provides about 380 calories, a little under 20 g protein and 17 g fat, plus about 170 mg calcium. The composition of richer custards or English puddings is infinitely variable, depending on the whim of the maker: more cream, more sugar, higher calories. Standard mixes and custard powder made up with whole milk provide about 90 calories per 100 g when mixed; most of the calories are from sugar and starch. The high-protein or low-sugar pudding mixes marketed in the United States as snacks and for dieters are a notion that would amuse the English originators of puddings, for whom it was, by definition, a high-calorie, filling food and an essential part of a proper dinner.

See also British Isles: England; Gelatin; Pastry; Starch.


Davidson, Alan. "Custard." In The Oxford Companion to Food, edited by Alan Davidson, pp. 237238. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Davidson, Alan. "Pudding." In The Oxford Companion to Food, edited by Alan Davidson, pp. 637638. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Leslie, Miss. Miss Leslie's Lady's New Receipt Book. Philadelphia: A Hart, 1851.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. New York: Scribners, 1984.

May, Robert. The Accomplished Cook. Facsimile of the 1685 edition. Foreword and introduction by Alan Davidson, Marcus Bell, and Tom Jaine. Totnes, Devon, U.K.: Prospect Books, 1994.

Laura Mason

Custard Pies

The appearance of early custards is unknown. In seventeenth-century England, the author Robert May (1685) gave patterns for baked custard tarts. Pastry for the base was cut to make fancy leaflike shapes. Vertical strips were added to the edges to make walls to retain the mixture. The shapes were baked blind, then filled with flavored egg and milk, and baked again to set the custard, which was finally decorated with a sprinkle of little colored candies. These custards were probably eaten by spooning the filling out of the pastry, which recipes suggest was tough and essentially for structural and decorative purposes.

Such elaborate dishes are unknown today, and custard pies are plain in appearance, their only decoration being a scatter of grated nutmeg, but individual custard tarts are made in deep pastry shells, recalling a little "flowerpot" shape, originally known as a dariole. The large French apricot tarts with custard baked around the fruit are not found in English cookery. A short pastry is always used for the crust in England, unlike Portuguese pasteis de nata, rich custard tartlets in flaky pastry.

Several distinctive North American variants of custard pie have appeared. These would not necessarily be considered custard pies by their makers, but a certain basic reliance on eggs and milk can be seen in the recipes. They include pumpkin pie, key lime pie, chess pies as made in the southern States, lemon meringue, and various "cream" pies. These products represent a distillation of centuries of ideas about custard and puddings from various European cultures, with some distinctively American twists added. Finally, custard pies also became important in early movies, but as ammunition, rather than as food. They were specially constructed with pastry sturdy enough to hold in the hand and included a satisfyingly messy filling.