YOU NEED TO KNOW: How to Make Custard (and Classic Creme Brûlée!)

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com

For close to a decade, I’ve been telling people near and far that my favorite dessert is ice cream. And that is, in some ways, true; ice cream offers the creamy texture and endless flavor options that makes enjoying dessert just the best. But lately, I’ve started to realize that my favorite isn’t ice cream- it’s the ever-adaptive, always delightful custard. Custard, if you don’t know, is a star component to a million different recipes, and so many of them are my favorite. Today, I’m going to teach you how to make custard, and you can flex those new skills with a classic creme brulée. Let’s get started!

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com

WHAT IS IT AND HOW DO I MAKE IT?

So what is custard? In general, custard is a milk-based mixture often sweetened with sugar and thickened with eggs. Different spices, extracts, and other flavorings add in to create different flavors. While all custards tend to have the basic skeleton of eggs, milk, and sugar, there are a few different ways custards can be prepared.

Baked Custard

Baked custard is, as you can imagine, baked! If you’ve ever made a custard pie (like this one!), a bread pudding, or a creme brûlée, you’ve made a baked custard. Here, ingredients stir together, either in a bowl or over the stovetop, before baking until set.

There are a number of ways to make a baked custard. In some cases, all of the liquid ingredients stir together with sugar, salt, and sometimes a thickener like starch or flour. Then, that liquid mixture pours into vessels (as with creme brûlée and custard pies) or over chunks of bread, as is the case with bread pudding. Baked custards generally prefer moderate heat, in large part, due to the eggs; eggs that are heated too much can curdle and cause quite a mess. In addition, water baths are often used to offer insulation to the custard while it’s in the oven. As the custard bakes, it sets, becoming even more firm as it cools.

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com

Stirred Custard

My husband’s favorite kind of custard is a stirred one. Why? Because he LOVES pudding. Pudding desserts, pastry cream and most ice creams start out as stirred custards. Here, sugar dissolves in warm milk or cream before being slowly added to eggs or egg yolks. That mixture is allowed to thicken over heat on the stovetop before cooling for use.

To make a stirred custard, we start with the dairy. Milk heats on the stovetop, often with sugar, a thickening agent, or even cocoa powder and other flavorings, until the sugar is dissolved. Once combined and smooth, the warm milk mixture is carefully added to the eggs or egg yolks. Remember- the eggs are prone to curdling here! Take care to prevent this by adding the milk little bit little and stirring all the while. Once the mixtures are combined, the custard is returned to the heat where it is stirred at a low temperature until thickened to the appropriate consistency. The custard then cools in the fridge until set.

Other Custards

There are a number of other ways to make custards (think gelatin! whipped cream!), but for today, we will focus on baked and stirred custards. You can research “gelatin custards” online to learn more.

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com

HELPFUL HINTS FOR MAKING CUSTARD

Combining Ingredients

Most custards call for combing warm milk and uncooked eggs. This is one of the most important steps of the process, because, if done incorrectly, the custard can curdle. Take care to combine these two ingredients slowly by tempering them. You can temper custard by slowly adding small, 2-3 tablespoon-sized portions of hot liquid to your egg mixture, whisking all the while. In doing so, you gradually increase the temperature of the eggs without technically cooking them.

If you fear you’ve curdled your eggs while combing the eggs and warm milk, don’t fret. Simply run your mixture through a fine sieve to eliminate any clumps. If your mixture has curdled, you’ll see what looks like scrambled egg pieces in your stainer!

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com

How to Tell if It’s Done

This is a tricky part of the process. As always, I recommend reading through the entire recipe prior to beginning the cooking process. Know what you are looking for! In the case of baked custards, recipes will often call for a jiggle test. Here, you gently wiggle the custard dish. Baked goods that are not at all done will wave like a water bed under its entire surface. Partially cooked custards may have edges that only wiggle like Jell-O while having a center that still appears liquidy under the surface. But custards that are cooked just right have edges that are mostly set with a center that wobbles like Jell-O. In the case of bread puddings or pies, you may see some slight puffing happen as the dish nears doneness.

With stirred custards, we often use the spoon test! Insert a large metal or wooden into the cooked mixture and carefully run a finger down the back of it. For most “done” stirred custards, the mixture will coat the back of the spoon and you’ll see a line parting where your finger ran through it. You can also examine the consistency of the custard. In the case of puddings, the mixture will be slightly thickened but loose, similar to a bottled ranch dressing. For pudding pies, I like my custard to have the texture of loose mayonnaise, just barely thick enough to spoon.

Making a Water Bath

Water baths are one of those things a lot of people try to skip. While I can’t explain all the ins and outs of a water bath, I will tell you that I use them implicitly when called for. So what it is? A water bath, often called a bain marie, is a little a pool of hot water that you bake your custard in. In general, the custards are added to their dish (i.e. ramekins for creme brûlée, a springform pan for a cheesecake) while water heats on the stove. We then place the custard dish into a larger vessel (a baking dish or some other rimmed oven-safe pan) before carefully pouring in an inch of hot water. The water should just barely extend up the sides of the custard dish.

My research tells me that water baths exist for one reason: to prevent the outside of the custard from over-cooking before the inside gets cooked. It also can help to moisten the top of the custard with water steam and prevent the custard from cracking.

To make a water bath, I recommend heating water in a tea kettle. If you don’t have a tea kettle, just be sure you are warming your water in a pan you can safely transfer water from.

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com

WHAT CAN I DO WITH A CUSTARD

Honey, the world is your oyster. Custards are added to all sorts of recipes in all sorts of forms to add creamy texture, moisture, and flavor. Thin custards like creme anglaise often pour over desserts like soufflés (which is also technically a custard, btw!). Pastry cream is a thickened custard that chills before being piped or layered into desserts like profiteroles and (one of my favorites) mille-feuille. Stirred custard can also be chilled and churned into frozen custard– truly, God’s gift to earth. And don’t forget, pudding, pudding pies, and curds; these stovetop delights make for a delicious dessert all on their own.

Basically, if the main ingredients are eggs, milk, and sugar, there’s a good chance you’re working with a custard! Once you know how to properly prepare a custard, you can flavor and add it to any number of desserts. I’m going to list a few of my favorite Wood & Spoon custard desserts below. Then, we’ll get to the creme brûlée!

Brown Butter Bourbon Chess Pie
Blueberry Mascarpone Ice Cream
Chocolate Budino
Creamy Rice Pudding
Southern Coconut Cream Pie
Coffee Donuts
Caramelized Banana Pudding
Chocolate Pudding Pie
Coconut Cream Pie Puffs
Blueberry Sour Cream Pie
Brown Sugar Buttermilk Tart

Classic Creme Brûlée

Who doesn’t love a creme brûlée? I recently took my daughter out for a fancy dinner with a friend, and she tried this classic dessert for the first time. Her reaction was, obviously, awe. She ate more than her share, and I regretted not ordering two.

While creme brûlée’s origin is debated (is it French? English?), it now lives forever in my heart. This creamy, baked dessert requires little but quality vanilla and a crunchy torched top. I like to serve mine with a smidge of whipped cream and fresh fruit, but you can pick your poison. Whatever you do, make sure you serve the dessert just after bruleeing the top- otherwise, your crunchy burnt sugar will dissolve and puddle on your dessert.

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com

A note on bruleeing: there’s a couple different ways to do it. If you’re lucky enough to own a kitchen torch, congrats! This is my preferred method. Not only does torching provide the most controlled method of bruleeing, but it also makes for a great party trick. Alternatively, you can brûlée your dessert under a preheated broiler. This may be preferred if you’re serving bulk amounts of creme brûlée or if you don’t have fancy kitchen equipment. Simply preheat your broiler, sprinkle the tops of your custards with a bit of sugar, and bake on the top rack of the oven until just beyond golden brown. Be careful removing them from the oven and wait a minute or two before eating.

Ok, that’s all I have on creme brûlée and custards. For now, happy Saturday and happy baking!

Cooking Tutorial: Learn How to Make Custard and Homemade Creme Brûlée! This recipe instructional by Wood and Spoon gives instruction on the different types of custards, how to make them, and a simple, straight-forward recipes for vanilla bean creme brûlée. This elegant dessert is great for dinner parties and can be semi-made-ahead. Read all about this classic French dessert on thewoodandspoon.com
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YOU NEED TO KNOW: How to Make Custard (and Classic Creme Brûlée!)

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This classic creme brûlée is a creamy custard with a crunchy, bruleed top!

  • Author: Kate Wood
  • Prep Time: 15
  • Cook Time: 35
  • Total Time: 180
  • Yield: 4 Servings
  • Category: Dessert

Ingredients

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus more for topping the custards 

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Pour the heavy cream into a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Split the vanilla bean down the middle, using a paring knife to carefully scrape the insides into the cream. Add the empty bean shell as well. Place the saucepan over medium low heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low once simmering and simmer, whisking regularly, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Allow the mixture to cool an additional 10 minutes while you prep the remaining ingredients.
  3. Fill a tea kettle with water and bring to a bowl. Set an 8 or 9” baking dish off to the side. These will be used for your water bath.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk to combine the salt, yolks, and 1/3 cup sugar. Once the cream has cooled  slightly, remove the vanilla bean pod and use a heat-safe measuring cup to pour in just a bit of the heated cream into the yolk mixture, stirring all the while. Note: it’s important to not add too much cream too fast- the heat from the cream could cook and curdle the eggs. Scoop out some more cream and quickly whisk that into the eggs as well. Return all the egg/cream mixture back to the saucepan and whisk to combine. 
  5. Strain the mixture into 4- 6 ounce ramekins. Place them into the baking dish and carefully pour the boiling water from the tea kettle into the pan, creating a “bath” for the ramekins to sit in. The water should reach halfway up the ramekins. Carefully place the baking dish into the oven and bake the custards about 40 minutes or until it jiggles slightly in the center when you gently shake them. Do not allow them to overbake- this could cause the custard to curdle. Once finished, cool slightly prior to chilling, covered, in the fridge about 4-6 hours.
  6. When ready to enjoy, remove the custards from the fridge. Sprinkle ½ teaspoon sugar on top of each custard. Use a kitchen torch or a preheated broiler to cook the top of the sugar until golden. When using the torch, hold the flame about 5” above the ramekins. Slowly cook the sugar, passing the flame over the custard, until golden. For the broiler, simply place the ramekins on a baking pan and broil on the top shelf of the oven until golden, about 2 minutes. Alllow to cool 1-2 minutes before enjoying. 

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