Drinking Custard

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By Damon Lee Fowler

When the crisp late-autumn air fills with Christmas music and the decorations on every door turn red and green, I start craving the old-fashioned comforts of drinking custard.

More commonly known down South as “boiled” custard and almost everywhere else as crème anglaise (how is it that things always sound more elegant in French?), this thin but silky-rich concoction has been a staple in Southern kitchens almost since the first boat landed at Jamestown in 1607.

In my family, enjoying it in its old-fashioned role as a drink has deep roots. I blame my older brother, Earle: he started it, becoming addicted the stuff as a toddler, long before I was even imagined. At the time, my parents were living in rural Kentucky where my father pastored a small church while he was in seminary in Louisville. In those parts, drinking custard was a longstanding tradition, not just at the holidays, but throughout the winter. My brother took to it like a cat takes to cream.

Back then, he was actually cute, and all the ladies in the community made spoiling him their main occupation. Knowing how much he loved custard, every Sunday morning one of these ladies would leave a still-warm mason jar of it between the screen and back door.

After Dad finished seminary and our family came back home, drinking custard came with us, and has remained a favorite late night treat ever since. When there was little more than a suggestion of chill in the air, just before bedtime we’d hear a welcome clang of pots, closely followed by the irresistible scent of warming milk and vanilla. Soon, we’d tumble downstairs to find Mama pouring steaming hot custard into odd, brightly colored melamine teacups.

We didn’t really “drink” it, but lapped it up like soup with a spoon, rarely waiting for it to cool. I’d almost always burn my tongue on the first spoonful, but I don’t remember caring very much.

The really wonderful thing about boiled custard is its versatility. It can be enjoyed warm or cold, and not just out of a cup: it’s the perfect sauce for bread pudding, cooked fruit, and almost any pie that isn’t custard-based. Many use it as an eggnog base, folding in whiskey, nutmeg, and sometimes a couple of cups of whipped cream. It can be made richer by using equal parts cream and milk or lightened up using only milk.

Drinking Custard (AKA “Boiled” Custard or Crème Anglaise)
Makes about 5 cups

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 whole vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 large egg yolks
¾ cup sugar

Prepare the bottom of a double boiler with simmering water. Put the milk, cream, and if using, the vanilla bean in the top of a double boiler and bring it to a simmer over direct medium heat. Transfer it to the bottom half with its simmering water.

In a heatproof bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks until it is light and smooth and ribbons off the spoon. Slowly beat in a cup of the hot liquid to temper the eggs, then slowly beat the eggs into the hot milk and cream.

Cook, stirring constantly until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Take the top pot from the heat and continue stirring until it has cooled slightly, about 4 minutes more. Remove the vanilla bean, if used. Stir in the extract, if using, and if serving cold, stir until it is cooled, then let it cool completely and refrigerate until well-chilled.

Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.

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Reader Comments:

54321

Dear Paula, I treasure this recipé. Even though I've lived in Boston for more than half my life, I will always be a Middle Tennessean with family roots (pronounced "ruts"!) in West Tennessee. And for my people, boiled custard was and is a treasured family tradition for the holidays. Even among avowed Campbellite "teetotalers" out in the country, some "flavoring" (usually bourbon or Tennessee whiskey) was allowed in that custard cup during the festive season, as my family's history has confirmed. My Dad grew up in a strict Campbellite (meaning "The" Church of Christ, a very conservative branch of the Disciples of Christ) household in Carroll County, Tennessee. I won't go into all the strictures that were placed on a Church of Christ household, but you can imagine that having spirituous liquors in the house would have been a serious offense. Yet there was that bottle of Tennessee whiskey kept under the sink, for two reasons: One, for medicinal purposes, when a "hot toddy for the body" was called for; and Two, for use as "flavoring" at boiled custard time during the holidays. There was a great aunt that I never knew, who loved her flavored boiled custard to a high degree. Family lore has it that each time she would ask for a serving, she would always ask for "jes' a tetch more flavorin'" in her custard cup. I'd hate for an American Southern tradition like boiled custard to fade away, it's too important to the lives and stories of too many from my homeland whose family ties included this traditional holiday quaff.

By Rob Marais on December 28, 2013

54321

You "transfer" the top of the double boiler which you just have been cooking on direct burner and set it in the bottom of the double boiler.

By Greg on December 10, 2013

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Candie, At first, the top of the double boiler needs to be directly on the burner, then transfer it onto (not into- I was confused myself at first) the bottom half of the boiler.

By Joyce Duncan on December 05, 2012

54321

This recipe is confusing ..what does it mean when it tells you to Transfer it to the bottom half with its simmering water. You cant mix it with the water...I dont understand at all.... if anyone knows what that means please email me.... Thanks...

By candie on December 17, 2011

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Thanks, everyone, for your warm comments and memories. It's good to know that boiled custard is alive and well in the South. Stay tuned: next column we'll remember my grandfather's baked fresh ham, an un-cured leg of pork that he slow baked to perfection every Christmas.

By Damon Lee Fowler on December 12, 2010

54321

I grew up in the midwest,my Mother made Custard every Christmas,she made it the same way, only she used evaporated milk, and after it cooled, she added a little Whiskey,we looked forward to the Custard every Christmas.

By Ernestine Carter on December 11, 2010

54321

This sounds delicious! I just tried this when some friends came over last night. Thanks for sharing!

By Anonymous on December 11, 2010

Growing up in Kentucky, I’ve been addicted to Boiled Custard for years. Around November, I start looking for it in stores. It is the only thing I drink out of the carton with. Now that I have you recipie, I will certainly give it a try. Hopefully, I will no longer have to wait until the holiday season to get my Boiled Custard “fix”.

By JT Hulan on December 10, 2010

I grew up in Texas, and have my great-grandmother’s boiled custard recipe, still use it on occasion.  Very similar to this one.  My grandmother and mother would make it when one of us had been sick.  I think the idea was that it would be easy on the digestion and would provide strength for recovery.  I like it no matter what, especially in winter, so thanks for reminding me that I need to whip up a batch.

By Kate on December 08, 2010

Awwwww what memories this brings to mind.  I grew up in Texas, but we had “boiled custard” in the winter when I was a child.  I love it!

By Debbie Sanders on December 07, 2010

Wow, you sure dug up some great memories for me! I could just taste the delicious treat.  I too grew up in Kentucky and it was a holiday tradition for my family to have boiled custard. We had it every Christmas day.  My Great Grandmother would make the custard and after her passing her two daughters (my Great Aunts) carried on the cooking of those wonderfully rich batches of the custard. We also drank it out of fancy cups and even had spoons alongside them. Since I have lived in CA (27 years) I have not had any of that delicious custard. Your article got my mouth watering. I am going to call my Great Aunt Nana who is now 87 and ask her for the family recipe. I think my CA family will have a bit of a very special Southern tradition as well as something passed down in our family this holiday season. I was lucky enough to inherit the fancy cups that we used when I was a child and what a better way to use them now than to fill them with boiled custard. Best wishes to all of you for the holidays!

By Annie Bookser on December 07, 2010

Sounds yummy to me!  Wanted to say I love that the custard cup and saucer are sitting prettily upon a beautiful doily.  (although it would be nicer if the doily was flipped over so it was right side up LOL)  I love to make doilies and am so tickled to see a doily being used!  :D

By Gramma Rita on December 07, 2010

Very interesting, I’ve never heard of this. Sounds very much like a warm eggnog. I’ll have to try it.

By Lt. Sanders on November 29, 2010

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hi! wink i was wondering if you could share the recipe for the chiken/grape salad-the one that is pictured on the croissant above? thanks! wink sandra
Sandra Neuheimer-Huller in Chicken Salad: A Southern Staple on April 19, 2014 at 10:37 am

Where do I buy these magazines
in A Basketful of Traditions on April 19, 2014 at 8:22 am

I WISH I COULD COOK. COULD I COME WORK FOR JUST ROOM AND BOARD AT YOUR NEW RESTURAUNT IN PIGEON FORGE FOR THE SUMMER? I WENT TO COLLEGE NOT FAR FROM THERE - HIWASSEE COLLEGE. YOU WOULDN'T HAVE TO PAY ME, I WOULD WORK FOR FREE JUST FOR THE EXPERIENCE. TAMMY LEVAN 19 SPENCER WAY KINGS PARK, NY 11754 HAPPY EASTER! CHRIST IS RISEN!
TAMMY L LEVAN in A Basketful of Traditions on April 19, 2014 at 4:31 am

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Jaci Pardun in 10 Quick Household Tips on April 18, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Paula, I am glad to know that I am not the only person who makes Easter Baskets for their adult children and mail them across the United States. My Daughter lives in Long Beach, CA and I not only sent her a basket but her husband and my granddaughter Reese. We also buy special Russel Stover Bunnies for each child too. My husband has the list in his phone... Sara .. Cookies 'n Crème.... Sidney and Stephen.. Peanut Butter Etc. It one of my favorite things to do for my kids.. no matter how old they get. And passing it along to my Grandchildren. It's even more special to me knowing we share a family tradition. Blessings and Happy Easter!!
Sharon Cason-Card in A Basketful of Traditions on April 18, 2014 at 11:03 pm