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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