Friday, February 24, 2017

White Custards and a Short Custard History Primer

White Custard 

Recipe Provenance
The following recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

The Recipe: White Custards
Set a quart of new milk in a skillet of hot water & let it boil, and add the whites of 8 eggs well beaten, sweeten to the palate & flavour with vanilla or anything you please. Stir the custard all the time it is boiling.

About Custards
The word custard today refers to a concoction of milk and eggs that is cooked either on top of a stove or baked in an oven. These custards are thick and firm when cool. However, custard can also be made into a thinner sauce used to pour over bread puddings, fruit, etc. 

The term custard is derived from the French word croustade, meaning an uncovered pastry case (meant to be filled with a cooked milk and egg mixture). Therefore, the name for the case is actually now what we use to refer to the firm, thick filling. Interestingly, custards in Asia are traditionally made without milk; instead, water and sometimes oil are combined with eggs to make the custard. 

Custard recipes actually can be traced back as far as the Roman days and can be found in Apicius, a collections of Roman recipes written in Vulgar Latin (the Latin of the common people) believed to have been compiled in the late 4th century or early 5th century AD. The name Apicius probably comes from a term used back then to denote a lover of fine food, possibly inspired by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived during the 1st century AD.

Apicius contains several custard recipes such as brain custard, vegetable and brain custard, elderberry custard, rose custard and the one below which is for a Nut Custard. Note that this recipe contains milk, eggs, broth and oil which combines both the eastern and western custard traditions:



Later Medieval custard recipes are found in Libellus de arte coquinaria, An Early Northern Cookery Book, edited by Rudolph Grewe and Constance B. Hieatt (2001), a translation of the oldest known collections of European recipes written sometime during the Middle Ages. The original text of the cookbook is believed to be lost, but there are four collections of recipes (codices) that appear to all come from it. They are written in the local vernacular languages of northern Europe: Danish, Icelandic and Low German. There are about 35 recipes contained in these four separate codices, and the oldest might date back as far as the 12th century. There are several recipes for custards including Larded Milk, Gilded Milk, and this recipe:

Almonds in a Pie:Make thick milk of almond kernels. Make a shell of dough, pour the milk into it and cover the top with the same dough. Salt it, and bake it in a hot oven.

Notice that no eggs are used in this custard recipe, just almond milk and salt cooked in a pastry case. This must have been a recipe used on fast days when no eggs, dairy, butter, meat etc. were allowed to be consumed.

A set of recipes from the very late Medieval period/early classical period in the 16th century, Livre fort excellent de Cuisine (The Most Excellent Book of Cookery) has custard recipes for herb custard, custards served with roulade of venison, and tartlets.

By the 17th century, custards flavored with almonds, orange-flower water, orange, spices, and rice were quite popular. Here is a recipe from Gervase Markham's 1615 publication, The English Housewife (London):

Otherways to make a White Pot._ Take a quart of sweet cream and boil it, then put to it two ounces of picked rice, some beaten mace, ginger, cinamon, and sugar, let these steep in it till it be cold, and strain into it eight yolks of eggs and but two whites, then put in two ounces of clean washed and picked currans, and some salt, stir all well together, and bake it in paste, earthen pan, dish, or deep bason; being baked, trim it with some sugar, and comfits of orange, cinamon, or white biskets.

Here is another Markham recipe for a baked custard:

To make a Cream Tart in the Italian fashion to eat cold._ Take twenty yolks of eggs, and two quarts of cream, strain it with a little salt, saffron, rose-water, juyce of orange, a little white-wine, and a pound of fine sugar, then bake it in a deep dish with some fine cinamon, and some canded pistaches stuck on it, and when it is baked, white muskedines. Thus you may do with the whites of the eggs, and put in no spices.

Here is another 17th century custard recipe that is flavored with orange-flower water. It is from The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened by Sir Kenelm Sigby Knight (Britain, 1669):


Boil a quart of good Cream with sticks of Cinnamon and quartered Nutmeg and Sugar to your taste. When it is boiled enough to have acquired the taste of the Spice, take the whites of six New laid eggs, and beat them very well with a little Fresh-cream, then pour them to your boyling Cream, and let them boil a walm or two. Then let it run through a boulter, and put a little Orange flower-water to it, and sliced bread; and so serve it up cold.

In the 17th century in Britain, fruit creams also became popular; these incorporated fruit puree into the custard and were sometimes called fools

Interestingly, custard tarts could also be made into fanciful designs such these from Edward Kidder's Receipts of Pastry and Cookery for the Use of His Scholars (Britain, 1702):

Of course, ice creams are often made with a custard base. Here is a recipe for an ice cream made with a custard base from a cookbook published in America by a British author, The New Art of Cookery, According to Present Practice by Richard Briggs (Philadelphia, 1792):

And not to be ignored was the invention of custard powder in 1837 by Alfred Bird in Birmingham, England. Custard powder was revolutionary in that it was a mixture of flavored cornstarch (cornflower in the UK) and sugar which was meant to be heated with milk; no eggs were required to thicken the custard-revolutionary indeed!

(Source: Pinterest)

About This Recipe

This is one of those recipes in the manuscript that just does not work the way it is written. It is written for egg whites only, no egg yolks which makes it trickier to prepare successfully. I originally deciphered the number of egg whites to be 3 but after testing the recipe numerous times I came to realize it must have been an 8! I also consulted other period recipes for White Custards (and there are very few). Here is one from The Woman Suffrage Cook Book by Hattie Burr (1886, 1890):

After numerous failed attempts at cooking this on the stove-top, and after reading other period recipes, I realized these egg white custards do indeed need to be baked in an oven otherwise they do not really set up properly. Finally, I altered the recipe so that it can yield enough to fill six ramekins that fit neatly into one large rectangular casserole dish.

Modern Recipe Adaptation: White Custards


  • Whites of 6 Large Eggs
  • 1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar, Divided
  • 3 Cups Whole Milk
  • 1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract


  1. Heat oven to 350ยบ F.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg whites and about half the sugar. Set aside.
  3. In a three-quart saucepan, whisk together the milk and the remaining sugar (the addition of the sugar to the milk will help prevent the milk from scorching). Set over medium heat and bring just to the boil and then immediately remove from the heat.
  4. Temper the eggs into the milk by ladling about 1 cup of the milk mixture into the eggs and whisk together. Then add the egg mixture into the saucepan with the milk. Whisk together. 
  5. Add the vanilla extract and whisk. 
  6. Place six custard ramekins in a large (10" x 15") rectangular casserole dish. Pour the custard evenly into into the ramekins. Pour boiling water into the casserole dish until it reaches a level half-way up the ramekins. Do not cover.
  7. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the custard is firm and jiggles just slightly when shaken.

References in Addition to Primary Sources Noted in Post

  • Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University, 2014)
  • Oxford English Dictionary

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