Nell’s Boiled Custard Recipe


Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

I mentioned my grandmother’s boiled custard recipe the other day in conjunction with a) Christmas and b) Micallef Ylang in Gold. As requested, here’s the recipe.

But first, a few words about Southern boiled custard: it’s a thin, pourable custard which is traditionally served over cake or fruit, or sipped from glasses a la eggnog, or spooned from cups as if it were soup. It can be served warm or cold, but not in between. Do not expect a puddinglike custard. Do not expect pastry creme. It’s more like crème anglaise. Boiled custard is made of similar ingredients, but the texture will be more like heavy cream than something that can fill a pastry.

We always had it on Christmas Eve, usually spooned up from shallow bowls or cups, with a slice of pound cake on the plate and/or a small island of vanilla ice cream slowly melting in the center of the cup. I often asked my grandmother for the recipe, but she told me it was tricky to make and the best way to learn how to do it properly was to watch her make it sometime.

That time never came. But recently I found a recipe on the internet that was designed for microwave cooking – and then my mother pointed out that her version of Nell’s boiled custard recipe, scaled down to produce an amount more easily consumed by a family, was included in the church cookbook she gave me for my birthday last year. (I had, somehow, missed seeing it while perusing the thing – probably because she’d named it “Ron’s Mom’s Boiled Custard” instead of “Boiled Custard.” Go figure.)

As it turned out, I liked the taste of the internet version I found better than Mom’s version, but the texture of hers was far superior. So I adapted both versions to produce this one that has both the velvety, creamy texture of Nell’s stand-over-the-stove-stirring-for-hours recipe and its sweet, egg-rich taste.

So. Here ya go. And please bear with my explanations and overly-detailed cooking instructions. Nell was right – even with the microwave, it’s tricky to make, but follow the step-by-step instructions and it should come out just fine. My microwave uses 1200 watts of power with an automatic turntable, so the cooking times are on the short side and I don’t have to stir or reposition the bowl often. If yours is a lower-powered appliance, just cook a little longer. If it doesn’t have a turntable, you’ll probably want to stop the microwave every 1-2 minutes and stir to prevent hot spots.

• 4 cups whole milk (you can use 2%, but good grief, this is dessert – live a little)
• 2/3 to 1 cup granulated sugar
• 1/8 tsp salt
• 4 tsp all-purpose flour
• 4 eggs
• 1-2 tsp vanilla, to taste (and do not even bother with the artificial stuff)

Cooking instructions:

Combine the milk, sugar, and salt in a large microwave-safe bowl; heat on medium-high (60% or 70% power) in the microwave until hot but not boiling. Meanwhile, place the eggs and flour, in that order, into a blender or food processor, and blend on low speed until smooth but not frothy. When the milk mixture is hot, turn the blender on low and add ½ cup of the milk mixture to the eggs while the blender is still running. Add another ½ cup of milk mixture in the same way. Then add the warmed egg mixture to the hot milk mixture, whisking until completely combined.

Place the bowl on a microwave-safe plate to confine any escaping mixture, then microwave the combined egg-milk mixture for about 3 minutes on 60-70% power (medium-high), then whisk thoroughly. Return the bowl to the microwave, set the time and power for another 3 minutes on 60% power, and STAY BY THE MICROWAVE. Do not leave. From a few feet away, keep an eye on the bowl. If the phone rings, let it ring. If your kids come howling into the kitchen, whining about who hit who, let them howl (unless there is blood or broken bones, of course). If at any time during the second 3-minute cooking time, the volume of the mixture in the bowl suddenly seems to grow larger, STOP THE COOKING, and I mean IMMEDIATELY. Take the bowl out of the microwave, and if the mixture seems curdled, pour it right back into the blender and blend on medium-low speed until the mixture seems smooth.

(Apparently this does not happen to my mother, only to me, and I suppose my microwave might be flexing its magic biceps more than hers does, or something like that. You are actually trying to avoid this situation, because this means that the mixture has, in fact, boiled, and you may have little cooked bits of egg instead of a velvety veil of YUM. However – oh well. The blender will fix it right up, and whatever you’re missing won’t matter because it tastes good. Edit, as of 12/30/14: I have a new microwave, and it does not volcano-boil the custard. Yay!)

If the mixture behaves itself and does NOT do this boil-up volcano thing in the bowl, the only thing left is to check to see whether it is thick enough. The time-honored phrase for this state is “thick enough to coat the back of a spoon,” and while this description makes sense to me, I’ve seen what the stuff ought to look like, and apparently the phrase is confusing to a whole generation of people whose grandmothers did not make boiled custard (or gravy, for that matter). What you do to test if it’s “thick enough to coat the back of a spoon” is this: dip a cold spoon into the mixture. Then hold it up horizontally, with the convex back of the spoon facing up, and swipe a finger across the spoon. Your finger should leave a line in the mixture; if the line fills itself in, the mixture isn’t thick enough. If it’s too thin, cook another minute at 50% power. If still too thin, try again at 50% power, at one-minute intervals, until thick enough.

At this point, add vanilla to taste – I like lots of vanilla in mine, so I use the higher amount – and pour the custard either into bowls, if you’re serving it warm, or into Mason jars to place into the refrigerator to cool, as I do.

You can make (alcoholic) eggnog from a boiled-custard base, very easily – add ½ oz. to 1 oz. of rum or bourbon, or your liquor of choice, per serving, and grate a little fresh nutmeg over the top. We don’t really do alcoholic eggnog around here, but it’s easy to add a bit of freshly grated cinnamon stick as well.

Spoon it up and enjoy the velvety sweetness! It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week… I think. It never lasts that long in mine. You might have to shake the Mason jar before serving.


9 thoughts on “Nell’s Boiled Custard Recipe”

  1. Dear Mals- Thank you so much for generously sharing this recipe with us all. I have known some folks who have been outstanding cooks or bakers who would not share recipes or techniques claiming they are family secrets. So I really appreciate a cooks generosity when they are so willing to share.

    I believe that food is more than just fuel, it is nourishment both physical and emotional, it is history and culture and love. When we share food we share love, comfort and our history and culture. And the more we share these things the more we understand each other and can live as one.

    Wishing you and your family a joyous and peaceful new year.

    1. You’re welcome! I like to share recipes because, just as you say, food brings people together. My family members are, by and large, good cooks, and I have good memories of shared meals with them. (Sometime I really must get my mom to write down my brother’s awesome barbecue sauce recipe – he dictated it to her and she scribbled it down, then promptly lost it, and he’s one of those people who never measures anything… )

      Thanks for the new year’s wishes, and I return them.

    1. Portia – you are in Sydney, yes? So you are missing the heatwave? It is 37 here in Canberra, 41 in Melbourne, 44 in Adelaide and 39 in Hobart. Hobart of all places! Good grief. So, no cake or custard for me either.

      (44 Celsius = 111 Fahrenheit, for the Fahrenheit folks.)

    2. Hope it works for you, and hope your weather is bearable… I’ve only visited Australia once, and that was in late July, so I was quite comfortable!

    1. Yep. Just got busy… and got bored with scent diary… and then got behind. Bleah. But it’s back up now, thanks for asking!

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