Updated: Nov 17, 2021
"The French call it crème anglaise, which says everything about our love for it." Felicity Cloake
I'm writing about custard - well trying to though I don't feel very hopeful here - because I had a litre, just about, in my fridge left over from our Easter celebrations. Our daughter-in-law's parents brought it with them to accompany their delicious apple strudel. And they left it behind.
Now I never buy ready made custard. And I hasten to say that this is not out of snobbery. I do not make my own either. Well I have done, but I honestly can't remember the last time I did, unless it was as part of something else. After all custard is really the basis of all sorts of other things. Mostly though I sort of make it by mixing the basic ingredients together - eggs, milk, vanilla together and then putting them in a quiche or some kind of dessert. I don't think of it these days as a sauce/accompaniment for other desserts.
Which is sort of odd because I ate a lot of it when I was growing up. All the way up to my twenties really and I did like it. In fact we even ate the bottom rung of custard - custard made from Bird's custard powder - at home. Because there were no eggs, in the post war years. Or cream, which I would mostly eat with dessert these days.
Indeed today I discovered that Bird's custard powder doesn't have any eggs in it anyway because:
"Birmingham chemist Arthur Bird developed his eggless version specifically to please his custard-loving but ovo-allergic wife (now there's a love story crying out for Hollywood treatment)." Felicity Cloake
That was back in 1837 but it's still being made, although the company was sold way, way back and is now just a brand in the Premium Foods range. I don't know whether you can get it here. A quick check of Coles online showed that you can only get home brand or Foster Clark custard powder here, but the fact that there is a home brand shows that it is still a popular product. Good for vegans I guess if it still has no eggs in it.
The bird logo was introduced back in the 1920's. I wonder why they didn't think of that sooner? Here are some old ads, an old tin top and a modern tin which shows that the bird logo has morphed a bit, and that even the Queen uses it! Now there's an endorsement - or does it say something about the tastes of the royal household. I wonder who it is who just has to have Bird's custard?
Whether you like it thick or thin is I guess just a matter of personal taste, that my poor mother indulged, because I liked it thick and my brother liked it thin - or maybe vice versa. I suspect my sister didn't like it at all - because I can't remember what her preference was. But the bête noir of that old custard was the lumps. The stuff you got at school was often lumpy, or it was just gloopy. And yet I honestly liked it. Well properly made custard is very nice. It's not a breeze to make though. If you are into science I found a very detailed examination of the chemistry of the problems in an article on the BBC Future website, called The curious chemistry of custard, which amongst other things said this:
"it doesn't pay to overheat custard. The average custard consumer has probably never thought about it, but custard exists on a continuum with scrambled eggs. Exactly the same reactions are going on, except that by stirring the eggs regularly you're breaking up the gel that forms the final product for a custard, and you aren't being so careful about the heat. But when you overcook a custard, suddenly the connection is very, very clear. A nasty eggy taste takes up residence and won't go away." Veronique Greenwood - BBC future
But as I said I liked it. Perhaps it hid the taste of what it was poured over. The BBC Future article featured this photograph, which shows how to do Spotted Dick with custard properly. In my youth the pudding was often much stodgier than this one. And yet - I actually quite liked Spotted Dick. That and Jam Roll Poly were school dinner favourites.
So when is custard, custard and when is it Crème Anglaise or Crème Patissière? Well I think fundamentally they are all the same although Crème Anglaise tends to be the thinner version that you pour over things and Crème Patissière is the thick stuff that is the basis of tarts and cream dishes. There may be subtler differences, but I think that's the main one. So if you want to be 'posh' call your custard Crème Anglaise.
"Custard is controversial: what makes it a custard, how best to cook it and, crucially, is it to be eaten or put in a pie and thrown?" Yotam Ottolenghi
So what did I decide to do with my leftover custard? Well there were not a lot of ideas out there, and I think what there were were for the thick custard that you can now buy not the pouring kind that I had. Anyway I decided to make a cake - specifically a Plum and custard streusel cake - well I had plums and I like streusel cakes - and tomorrow I am hosting my book group here in the morning - followed by lunch.. So I needed cake. Below are pictures - on the left what it's supposed to look like - the other two show my finished product. Superficially, at least from the top it looks just about alright, if a bit too dark in colour, but look at those oozing sides. I suspect that when we cut into it it will reveal itself as a gooey mess. There was no way I could have got it off the base unless I tried that turn it upside down thing. Very risky with such a gooey looking cake. Should I buy some biscuits as a reserve? No I have some panforte - that will do if needs be.
Custard, of course, is a vital element in custard tarts, vanilla slices and all manner of luscious things - crème caramel, crème brulée ... A good custard is a perfect thing.
And of course the best thing you could do with a carton of custard - too late I realised this - is to make ice cream. Fundamentally all you have to do is freeze it - after adding your favourite thing. No good for tomorrow but that would have been Ok - I could just have served something else. And then I would have had ice cream for the children when they come for an overnighter on Tuesday. Silly me.
"Chopsticks are one of the reasons the Chinese never invented custard." Spike Milligan
And he's wrong you know. What about Chinese custard tarts?