Custard is a variety of culinary preparations based on a cooked mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. Depending on how much egg or thickener is used, custard may vary in consistency from a thin pouring sauce (crème anglaise), to a thick pastry cream used to fill éclairs. The most common custards are used as desserts or dessert sauces and typically include sugar and vanilla but in medieval times almonds were used (see below). Custard bases may also be used for quiches and other savoury foods. Sometimes flour, corn starch, or gelatin is added.
Custard is usually cooked in a double boiler (bain-marie) or microwave, or heated very gently in a saucepan on a stove, though custard can also be steamed, baked in the oven with or without a hot water bath, or even cooked in a pressure cooker. Custard preparation is a delicate operation, because a temperature increase of 5–10 °F (3-6 °C) leads to overcooking and curdling. Generally, a fully-cooked custard should not exceed 80 °C; it begins setting at 70 °C. A water bath slows heat transfer and makes it easier to remove the custard from the oven before it curdles.
Custard was known in English cuisine at least as early as the fourteenth century. The first reference is as almond milk or almond cream. In a history of the Abbey of Croyland, England Laurence Chateres in 1413. It contained almonds, thick milk, water, salt and sugar. It is supposed by a Henry T Riley in a Notes and Queries that a 'proper' custard cannot be made without almonds.
Recipes for custards baked in pastry (custard tarts) appear, under titles such as Crustardes of flessh and Crustade, in The Forme of Cury and Harleian MSS 279 and 4016. These recipes include solid ingredients such as meat, fish, and fruit, which are baked in the custard. Meanwhile, recipes for stirred custards cooked in pots appear in the same Harleian MSS as Creme Boylede and Creme boiled.
While 'custard' may refer to a wide variety of thickened dishes, technically (and in French cookery) the word custard (crème or more precisely crème moulée) refers only to an egg-thickened custard.
When starch is added, the result is called pastry cream (crème pâtissière) or confectioners' custard, made with a combination of milk or cream, egg yolks, fine sugar, flour or some other starch, and usually a flavoring such as vanilla, chocolate, or lemon. Crème pâtissière is a key ingredient in many French desserts including millefeuille (or Napoleons) and filled tarts. It also used in Italian pastry and sometimes in Boston cream pie.
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