By John Mason and staff of ACS Distance Education

Custard can be used as the foundation for heathier deserts or even enjoyed on its own.

When it comes to sweet treats, custard is something that has a real edge in the health stakes. Custard may contains sugar, just like other sweets, but the proportion of sugar is much less, because it also contains eggs and milk (or cream). 

If you have an abundance of eggs, which is especially the case if you have your own chickens, there is nothing more comforting or nourishing than making your own homemade custard or special treats using custard as a base. By itself or an accompaniment to other delicious treats, custard made from scratch is not only simple and quick to do, the whole family will love your homemade custard- you will never buy pre-made custard again.

What is Custard?
Custard can vary in taste or consistency. The level of sweetness or creaminess can vary, and it can be anything from a thickish liquid to a solid. It is usually made from 3 things: milk or cream, eggs (often only yolks) and sugar. Sometimes it also contains a thickening agent, such as cornflour, or additives to modify taste, such as vanilla, caramel or even salt. 

Traditionally the milk used is cows milk, but this can be substituted with other types of milk, such as goats, soy or almond milk. Sugar can also be replaced with lower GI substitutes such as honey or xylitol.

Ideas for Using Custard

  • Sprinkle with some nutmeg and enjoy by itself

  • Pouring a liquid custard on other desserts (Christmas pudding packed with fruit & nuts or perhaps some fruit crumble).

  • Pouring custard over stewed seasonal fruits or some sliced banana- top with cinnamon is a wonderfully nourishing 

  • Custard based deserts such as trifle, bread and butter pudding, rice pudding

  • Custard tarts, lemon tart

  • Crème-Caramel, Vanilla slice

  • Crème-Brulee

Variations
There are lots of different types of custard, from those cooked over hot water, to others baked in the oven. Here are just a few.

  • Fried custard (Crème Frite) is baked in the oven then fried in boiling oil
  • Crème Brulee is a baked custard cooked in moulds for around 30mins at 140-150 degrees C Sugar is then spread over the surface and torched to caramelize.
  • Crème Anglaise is a pouring custard that has thickened cream added to it, traditionally used on deserts such as golden syrup or almond puddings.
  • Galaktoboureko is a traditional Greek custard pie topped with a syrup that incorporates honey, butter and lemon flavours.
  • Vanilla slices are layers of custard between sheets of pastry.
  • Fruit Tarts are shells of pastry, filled with custard and topped with berries or other fruits.
  • Custard puddings are made by baking mixtures or layers of custard with ingredients such as cake, bread or cooked rice.

Improved Nutrition

Consider the type of milk you use. Many people prefer A2 (which doesn’t contain a protein a lot of people are sensitive to). You can also consider sheep or goats milk. Low fat milks can be used, but with less fat, the recipe may need modification. 
White cane sugar is used traditionally; but this is a high GI sugar –something that most people eat too much of already. Consider experimenting with low GI alternatives (eg. Xylitol, honey, rice bran syrup or maple syrup have all been used successfully to make custards). The level of “sweetness” can vary between different sweeteners, so recipes may require modification. (eg. If using xylitol; reduce the volume of sugar used, by around one third).

Custard is often used together with cake or pastry, which is traditionally made from wheat flour. Most cakes and pastries can be made with wheat alternatives (eg. Gluten free flours, nut meals).

Play with the Flavours
Give variety to what you make by adding different textures or flavours to custard. Lots of different flavours work well, including vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, citrus, brandy and fruit liqueurs. Extra cream is added to make a creamier custard, used in “French Vanilla Slices” and crushed nuts are sometimes added to baked custard to enhance both texture and taste.
The basic method for making any custard is simple: Mix sugar and eggs in one container, heat the milk or cream in another, then combine the two and raise the temperature slowly until it thickens. For baked custards, the mix is then baked in an oven.

How to Make Vanilla Custard

  • 0.5 cup sugar
  • 2.5 cups milk
  • Small Vanilla pod or 5ml vanilla essence
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 whole eggs

Dissolve sugar in milk in a saucepan over medium heat; slowly bringing the milk to boiling point, at which point heat is removed. Add vanilla pod and leave for 20mins then remove; or add vanilla essence and leave stand for up to 20mins.
Beat eggs together in a large bowl, then pour milk very slowly into the bowl, mixing with the eggs as you go. Mix together very well then strain and remove any “froth” that forms on the surface.
Pour into moulds and place in a tray containing shallow bath of water (a bain-marie) and then cook in a moderate oven for 20-30 mins.
Remove and allow to cool
Tip: Sprinkle cinnamon or chocolate powder on the custard surface

How to Make Pouring Custard 
Traditional pouring custard for Christmas pudding, shouldn’t be too sweet. To this end it often has something added that is a little bitter, such as rhubarb or citrus. 
Ingredients:

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1 tablebspoon cornflower
  • 1 vanilla bean or 1 tspn vanilla extract
  • Small piece of lemon rind, or teaspoon of lemon juice.

Heat milk slowly to barely boiling point in a saucepan. Mix all other ingredients in a separate bowl. Combine milk very slowly with other ingredients, whisking as you go until you have a very smooth mix. 
Return to a saucepan and heat slowly on the stove, mixing constantly as the temperature rises. When the mixture starts to adhere to the back of the mixing spoon, it is ready to use.

How to Make Vanilla Slices

A custard mix containing a generous amount of thickener is prepared. 
Puff pastry sheets are baked until gold and puffed.
The pastry is then laid inside a baking tray, fully covering the bottom. Custard is then spread on top of the pastry, and another layer of pastry is then placed to cover the top. 
This is then refrigerated for 4 hours, until the mix has become firm.
The top can be sprinkled with icing sugar, or spread with icing.  

Troubleshooting
A few things can go wrong occasionally when making custard

  • Curdling involves egg protein solidifying, creating lumps in the custard. This happens because the mixing and heating is not done slowly and carefully. If milk that is too hot, comes in contact with egg that is too cool, the egg will cook and form lumps. Essentially this happens when the internal temperature of the mixture exceeds 85 Degrees Celsius. If custard is cooked in a pot that is over a pot of boiling water (heated by steam rather than direct heat), the chance of curdling can be minimized. Depending on your requirements you can finish the custard on the stove top without having to use the oven.
  • Burning can occur if heat is too high. If custard is left in a saucepan for too long, with heat still on, after forming, it may burn on the bottom of the saucepan. If it is cooked in an oven at too high a temperature, or not using the bain-marie method; there is a greater chance of burning.
  • Firmness – thickeners such as corn starch can be added to make custard firmer.
  • Lumps – a lumpy texture is most commonly caused by curdling; but can also result from poor mixing. Sometimes straining the mix through a sieve can solve the problem.


What To Do With Extra Egg Whites
Don’t throw away the egg whites- there are many things that you can make with the egg whites- you can whip up macaroons, or even a pavlova if you are entertaining.  Pancakes can be made nice and light and fluffy by folding in the extra beaten egg whites. Mix egg whites and a little flour with grated vegetables and fry to make vegetable patties; adding salt, pepper or herbs to taste.