I remember my custards class standing out while getting my Baking and Pastry degree at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago many years ago. It was a very early morning class and within minutes of starting, students were separating dozens of eggs in giant bowls and measuring out heavy cream, sugar and other ingredients. I think of all the classes over my two years in culinary school, I gained the most weight in this class. Who would have thought that endless amounts of Crème Brûlée, Flan and Crème Patisserie would make for a delicious breakfast?
Fast forward almost 20 years and custards are still some of my most beloved desserts. There's something about the lush, creamy, rich texture of a good custard that I can't resist. Whether it's whipping up a batch of homemade banana pudding, filling cupcakes with pastry cream or making cheesecake in my Instant Pot, custards are a component of many of my go-to desserts.
What is Custard?
Custard is made when you blend milk or cream with eggs, and the egg proteins coagulate to thicken, usually by some form of heat. It can take various forms and there are both sweet and savory custards. Here are just a few types of custards:
- Banana Pudding
- Bavarian Cream
- Boston Cream Pie
- Crème Anglaise
- Crème Brûlée
- Filling for Éclairs, Paczki and Profiteroles
- Flourless Chocolate Cake
- Lemon Curd (for Lemon Meringue Pie)
- Pastry Cream (aka Crème Patisserie)
- Pumpkin Pie
- Pot de crème
Custards can be prepared in a variety of ways as well, from cooking directly on the stovetop to baking in the oven to using a double boiler or bain-marie, which is a water bath. Regardless of the method, custards are cooked gently and at a low temperature so that the egg proteins don't curdle and you end up with scrambled eggs.
Sometimes a starch such as flour or cornstarch is used to stabilize a custard, which allows you to use fewer eggs. Pastry cream which is used as a filling for classic desserts like cream puffs and éclairs is made this way. You also use pastry cream as the base for fruit tarts, one of my favorite summer desserts for entertaining.
Custards also vary in consistency. They can be stiff like pastry cream or loose and nearly liquid like crème Anglaise, which is the base for ice cream. Not all ice creams contain eggs, but the ones you want to eat do. They provide richness, smoothness, and help prevent ice crystals from forming when frozen.
Obviously ice cream freezes well, but other custards don't. They are best cooled thoroughly then stored in the fridge, covered in plastic wrap for up to three days.
Some dishes that may appear to be a custard, like Panna Cotta, aren't a true custard because it is thickened with gelatin rather than eggs. However, our popular Flourless Chocolate Cake is considered a custard. Watch our Owner/Chef Shelley Young make it in this video:
Another fun custard to make is Chocoflan. I had been wanting to try this dessert since Chef Quincy Bissic first wrote about it a few years ago. If you aren't familiar with Chocoflan, it's often call the impossible or magical cake and it's half flan custard and half chocolate cake. The magic actually happens in the oven. When you assemble the cake, you put the chocolate cake batter on the bottom of the Bundt pan and the flan on top.
But when it comes out of the oven, the flan and cake have reversed places with the cake on top and the flan on the bottom. The science behind this is fascinating. America’s Test Kitchen explains that by combining the baking soda and acidic buttermilk in the cake batter, it produces a gas, making the cake less dense than the flan. The lighter cake layer rises and the denser flan layer sinks.
Once you invert the cake onto a plate, the flan is once again on top. I made the Dulce de Leche Chocoflan from the New York Times over the holidays for my family, and it did not disappoint!
I mentioned making cheesecake in the Instant Pot earlier, which is the only way I'll make cheesecake now. It's creamy, dense and never cracks! A pressure cooker is actually perfect for cooking custards because it can create a slow and low gentle cooking method in a moist environment. So, I put it to the test for another favorite custard dessert Crème Brûlée. By cooking it in the Instant Pot, this dish becomes hands-off!
Instant Pot Crème Brûlée
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Inactive Time: 4-24 hours
1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus 4 tablespoons for topping
4 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
Pinch fine salt
1. Place 1/3 cup of the granulated sugar and 4 large egg yolks in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. While whisking constantly, pour in 1 1/2 cups cream. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and a pinch of fine salt and whisk to combine.
2. Ladle the base into four ramekins. Cover each ramekin tightly with aluminum foil.
3. Place 1 cup water in an Instant Pot. Set a trivet inside the pot. Arrange the ramekins on the trivet. Only three of my ramekins fit on one layer, so I stacked the fourth ramekin on top.
4. Lock on the lid and make sure the pressure valve is set to seal. Use the manual function to set to cook for 7 minutes on LOW pressure. It will take about 10 minutes to come up to pressure. When the cook time is up, let the pressure naturally release for 15 minutes. Quick release any remaining pressure and carefully remove the lid.
5. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight.
6. About 10 minutes before serving, remove the ramekins from the refrigerator. Sprinkle each ramekin with 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and shake the ramekin to spread the sugar out into an even layer.
7. Arrange the ramekins in the CrispLid basket (only 3 will fit, so you'll need to do the fourth ramekin separately), and cook on 400 degrees for 3-5 minutes until you see the sugar caramelize on top. If you don't have a CrispLid, use a culinary torch or your oven's broiler to broil until golden brown and bubbly. Keep an eye on them in the oven, because this goes very quick. You may also need to rotate them to ensure even broiling. Serve immediately.
We have two upcoming virtual classes that will teach you the techniques of custards. Join us for:
- Virtual Cook Along: Paczki Party Workshop Saturday, February 13 3pm CST
- Virtual Baking: Scones and Lemon Curd Sunday, March 21 11am CST
I want you all to join in my love of custards by baking one for this week's #tcbcookingchallenge in The Chopping Block's private Facebook group. It can be any custard, in whatever form or shape you love.