Egg Custard

Custard receipts have remained in print since at least the 15th century, seemingly changed little over the years other than most have now dispensed with the raisins or dates sometimes called for in the earlier receipts. 

The ancient Romans discovered the thickening properties of eggs and made both savory and sweet egg-based dishes.   

In A Propre New Booke of Cokery, 1545, the author instructed the coffyn [crust] be hardened in the oven, and then the custard mixed with a quart of cream and five or six egg yolks.  Sugar and raisins or sliced dates were put into the coffyn with butter or marrow to sweeten it.  The coffyns were not always meant to be eaten, but served as a vessel to hold the pudding inside.

During that period of time crustades, or custards, named for the paste in which they were contained, continued to be made in both sweet and savory versions, the latter sometimes contained herbs and cheese, most commonly parsley, and artichokes.  A quiche is essentially a savory custard.

By the 15th century the egg and cream mixture was commonly served as a pudding, put into a coffyn, later called a crust or paste, or baked in china cups as instructed by Hannah Glasse in 1747.   Such dishes were thickened with eggs until the early 19th century at which time powders were made available that would thicken the cream for custards.

Perhaps the most well known of the custards today is crème brulee – a smooth custard sprinkled with sugar which is then quickly carmelized on top.  Before the days of handy kitchen torches for browning the sugar a tool called a salamander was heated very hot and held over the sugar to melt it.

Lemon, orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, or mace were commonly used to flavor the eggs and cream mixture.  The most common flavoring today is nutmeg followed by lemon.

A 1717 cookery book contained five recipes – for a basic custard, almond custard, rice custard, lemon custard, and orange custard.  Numerous other books contained multiple receipts indicating custards were quite popular. – Williams, T. The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook.  1717.  London.

The first mention this writer found of powder used for a thickener in making custard was N.M.K. Lee’s The Cook’s Own Book, 1840. 

[Note this source is a correction, the original posting wrongly credited this to Wm. Kitchiner 1830.  A comment from a reader prompted me to clarify the previous statement and in so doing I realized I had attached the incorrect source.

Powdered loaf sugar was the norm in the 18th century and does not refer to a thickening agent, however, the last note in the receipt does.  Any 18th or early 19th century cook had to pound, or powder, if you will, the loaf sugar before using it in a receipt, but the powder to which I was referring to as a thickening agent was at the end of the recipe.  “Ground rice, potato flour, panada, and all puddings made from powders are, or may be prepared in the same way” – these agents are thickeners and not sweeteners. 

Thank you, gentle reader, for pointing out the degree of preparation that went into something so simple as having sugar for a receipt.  In an effort to keep the posts to a reasonable length I fail sometimes to explain such details.] 

Boil a pint of milk, and a quarter of a pint of good cream; thicken with flour and water made perfectly smooth, till it is stiff enough to bear an egg on it; break the yelks of five eggs; sweeten with powdered loaf sugar; grate in a little nutmeg and the peel of a lemon: add half a glass of good brandy; then whip the whites of the five eggs till quite stiff, and mix gently all together:  line a pie-dish with good puff paste, and bake half an hour. N.B. Ground rice, potato flour, panada, and all puddings made from powders, are, or may be, prepared in the same way. – Lee, N.M.K.  The Cook’s Own Book.  1840.  Boston. 

In 1837, Alfred Bird developed a powder made primarily from cornflour which could be used in place of eggs to thicken custards.  His wife was apparently allergic to eggs but enjoyed custard so he set about producing a thickening agent that could be used in place of the eggs.  It is still made from cornflour (cornstarch) with sweetener and a coloring agent and sold in Europe under the name Bird’s Custard Powder.

Bird's custard powder is available on amazon.com

By the 1880’s recipes are found for egg custards, perhaps to distinguish them from those made with the powdered thickeners which were becoming more common.  The pies are still called egg custards in the South.
Modern Recipe:

1 c. sugar
4 eggs
2 c. milk
2 tbsp. melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly grated (optional)
1 (9 inch) unbaked pie shell

Beat the 1 cup sugar with the eggs until creamy. Beat in milk, melted butter, vanilla, and nutmeg. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Pour custard into pie shell and bake about 40 minutes – until firm. 

Beating the eggs for the custard
Ready to go in the oven


 MacIver, Susanna.  Cookery and Pastry.  1789.  London.

Collingwood, Francis.  The Universal Cook:  and City and Country Housekeeper.  1792.  London.

Harrison, Sarah.  The House-Keeper’s Pocket-Book, and Compleat Family Cook.  1760.  London.

Markham, Gervase.  A Way to Get Wealth.  1668.  London.

Williams, T. The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook.  1717.  London.

http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/pnboc1575.txt A Proper New Booke of Cookery.  Pub. 1575.  How, William.  (c) 2007 Daniel Myers, MedievalCookery.com

Glasse, Hannah.  The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.  1747.  London.

For more information and recipes see Victoria’s Home Companion, available from this site.