The Custard Formula

I had to use up some milk. My son has a very sensitive nose, and if the milk has an odor, he won’t drink it. The First Reader and I look at each other and shrug, because it’s fine… still. We both grew up with fresh, raw milk straight from the source, and trust me on this – milk can have an odor and still be perfectly safe and useful. For that matter, soured milk has it’s place. But not in custard. 

I didn’t have the time for a pudding, and it’s been a while since I did a custard. Custard is very, very simple food. A nice vanilla custard is considered invalid fare, because it has no real texture, it’s got lots of protein and some healthy fat, and it’s sweet enough to be appealing without being too sweet. This particular custard plays on the vanilla, and inherent sweetness of milk, so you don’t need nor want to add much sugar to it. 

In fact, you could make it without any sugar at all.

The custard formula is, taken back to the most basic form: 

  • 1 egg
  • 1 c milk

That’s it. 

Now, it wouldn’t be a very good custard. It would be a little sweet (lactose in milk means it’s actually quite sweet, as it’s supporting the growth of a small creature) but that’s it. No real flavor. Which is fine if you’re trying to feed a sick person. But a basic custard can be a pleasant treat for anyone, if you want it to be. 

So, if you do this: 

  • 4 eggs
  • 4 c milk
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • nutmeg

Pre-heat the oven to 350F

Begin by heating the milk in the microwave to near-boiling. This will take about 4-5 minutes, depending on your microwave. To reduce risk of boiling over and making a mess, I’ll do three minutes, stir, then a minute at a time until it’s steaming hot throughout. 

Beat your eggs in a good-sized bowl – the rest of the custard assembly will be happening in this. Get your hot milk, and start to drizzle it into the eggs while continuing to beat the eggs continuously. You want to do this nice and slow at the beginning, tempering the eggs so they don’t cook as the hot milk hits them. Once the milk and eggs are combined, whisk in the remaining ingredients: sugar, salt, and vanilla. 

Pour the custard into ramekins (this will fill up about 8 medium ramekins) or a single large baking dish (it will cook through best if it is no more than two inches deep). Onto the top of the custards, sprinkle a little bit of ground nutmeg (mace works, too!). Place the custards into a larger baking pan. 

Pull your oven rack out, and put the pan that is holding the custard onto it. Into the outer pan, pour boiling water (the teakettle is great for this) until it’s about a half-inch deep. Carefully, so it doesn’t slosh, slide your rack into the oven fully. 

Bake for about 45 minutes. The custards will still have some jiggle, they never fully firm up, but a knife blade should come out cleanly when inserted into the center. 

Allow to cool to at least room temperature before eating. Refrigerate if you like, but the flavor is best when it’s not super cold. 

If you want a firmer custard, then switch up some of the milk for cream, or add another egg while keeping the milk the same. This is much richer, and less likely to split (when you can see clear liquid in the custard as you take a bite). But for a straightforward custard, to use up milk or eggs, this is the way to go. Or if you have someone who needs to get a little protein in them, without challenging a queasy tummy. 

As you might guess from the suggestions above, there are many, many variations possible on custard. As long as you don’t stray too far from the formula, you could do a lot with it! If you wanted to sweeten it with a liquid (honey, molasses, pomegranate molasses, just as a few options) reduce the milk, or switch up the milk to a milk/cream blend. You can, of course, add in some bread torn to pieces, or breadcrumbs, and voila! bread pudding. Cooked rice, for rice pudding. I haven’t tried it with quinoa, but I don’t see why not. Season with an extract: coconut, almond, coffee? Change up the spice to cardamom, cinnamon, or some other warm ‘sweet’ spice. Maybe just a touch of black pepper for a bite, and of course you can make a custard savory, why not? 

So many possibilities! 


4 responses to “The Custard Formula”

  1. Nonnie Avatar

    I think the next time I make a custard, I’m going to try it with some chai baking spices.

    1. That’s a great idea!

  2. Growing up in the desert, I’ve been bitten often enough by sour milk (yes I should have checked but hungry thirsty kid) that I’m very squeamish about milk anymore. I’m with the little man on this one.

    1. I get it. I wouldn’t use milk that had turned, but this recipe is great for using up excess if you are getting close to the edge.