Delicious dessert: custard

Four custards, clockwise from the top left: orange, chocolate, vanilla, 'hopjes'Vla (Pronunciation of 'vla'), a kind of custard, is the favourite dessert for most Dutch people. It is ready-bought at supermarkets, and seldom prepared at home. In the past, custard was prepared with just eggs and milk (see this recipe for Custard with macaroons), but custard powder is also an excellent way to prepare it, and much better for those who have to watch their cholesterol.
On this page are recipes for vanilla custard with cornflour (US: cornstarch) and an egg, chocolate custard and hopjes custard with custard powder, and orange custard without milk, prepared with eggs and cornflour. The article about Vla on wikipedia concerns itself only with the Dutch industrial version..

These recipes are very young 'historical' recipes. The first three custards are from a cookbook I received as a gift from the mother of my boyfriend when I was eighteen, the excellent Prisma Kookboek from Mia Snelders (1964). It wasn't new when I got it, I'm not that old!. Anyway, she wanted to make sure her son would be fed properly, and this book learned me all the basics. The fourth recipe is from the Kookboek van de Amsterdamse Huishoudschool from Wannée ('Cookbook of the Domestic Science School of Amsterdam', eighteenth edition, around 1976 or 1977) which I bought myself when I started living with that same boyfriend.

I have added to each recipe the ingredients of the supermarket-equivalent for comparison. It is probably because of the large-scale industrial process, but still: for home-made custard all you need is custard powder or cornflour and maybe an egg, but the industrial custard first of all never uses eggs, but in addition to cornflour they do need modified (corn) starch, AND an extra thickening agent (carragene). And what exactly is the difference between 'milk' and 'liquid milk particles' that these are mentioned separately? Just try one of the custard recipes below, and see how easy they are to prepare and how good they taste. And if you use cornflour instead of custard powder, your custard is without any additives.
Speaking of additives, in the EC all additives have a so-called E-number which makes it easy to identify them.

Vanilla custardChocolate custardCaramel custardHopjes custard
Orange custardCustard with macaroonsZabaglioneCrème brûlée

Tips & Tricks

  1. When thickening your custard with egg(yolk)s, it is best to use an electric handmixer. Not only will the custard set sooner, but you also won't need a bain-marie and the chance of curdling is smaller.
  2. As soon as the custard has set, pour it out of the pan into a bowl. The still hot pan will make the custard curdle or thicken too much.
  3. Custard in which milk or cream is used will be covered with a skin when cooled. Most people I know abhor that skin, although there are also some who love it!. To avoid that skin from forming, cover with plastic foil placed directly on the custard.
  4. When using eggs or egg yolks to thicken, first temper them little by little with the hot liquid before adding them to the pan. Once the eggs or yolks are added, the liquid must not boil anymore.
  5. In all recipes you can use more or less sugar than indicated, and you can choose cream, milk or skimmed milk..
  6. Custard can be eaten warm, especially warm vanilla custard is a treat. If not eaten directly, place the custard in the refrigerator, it will keep two or three days.

What to do with all this custard
One of the best desserts on earth is prepared with custarded, cake, fruit (or fruit preserves), cream and maybe a dash of spirits: trifle. This can be prepared completely in advance, and looks great when you serve it in glass bowls. A recipe for classic trifle from  Delia Smith can be found here. Another great combination: vanilla custard with fresh strawberries or other summer fruit.
When using less custard powder, you'll make a dessert sauce which tastes great with apple pie or cake. When you use more custard powder, you 'll have made a pudding.

Vanilla custard with cream
A killer, this recipe. I prepared this especially for my brother in law in my sister's kitchen, so the custard could be eaten while still warm. That was how he always ate it as a child at his grandparent's, and for him that was the best custard ever.
The vanilla custard from the supermarket contains 'milk, whey, sugar, modified cornflour, cornflour, salt, food colouring (annatto,, E100), vanilla aroma, thickener (E407)'. So, the vanilla taste is synthetic, and the bright yellow colour is just a combination of annatto and curcumine (E100), which would be the same as turmeric (Indonesian cuisine: kunjit). The thickening agent E407 is carragene. Some brands use tapioca starch instead of cornflour and modified cornflour.
Dessert for 4 persons; preparation in advance 10 minutes; preparation 5 to 10 minutes.

Vanilla custardIngrediënts
1/2 liter/1 pint cream or milk
1 split vanilla pod
1 egg yolk
3 Tbsp cornflour
3 Tbsp sugar

Preparation in advance
Pour the cream into a saucepan, and scrape the vanilla seeds out of the pod into the cream. Then add the pod too, and bring the cream gently to a boil. Let it simmer for ten minutes, then remove the pod.
Combine sugar and cornflour, and add the yolk. Stir to a paste.

Add one tablespoon of the hot cream to the paste, stir well. Add another spoonful of cream, keep stirring. Repeat until the paste has become liquid and warm. Then add this to the cream in the saucepan, using a whisk or handmixer to mix. Keep whisking at low temperature, also scraping over the bottom and sides of the pan, until the cream has thickened into custard. Take it off the fire, pour into a bowl and cover with plastic foil.

To serve
Custard is usually eaten cold, but warm or tepid vanilla custard is a delight. Serve in small bowls, and if you want some extra calories, add some whipped cream on top.

Chocolate custard
This version is without eggs.
Chocolate custard from the supermarket contains 1.5% low-fat cocoa, against 5% cocoa in this recipe. In addition, the industrial version is made with 'milk, liquid milk particles, cornflour, modified cornflour, thickening agent (E407)'.
Dessert for 4 persons; preparation in advance 1 minute; preparation 4 minutes.

Chocolate custardIngrediënts
1/2 liter (1 pint) milk (full-fat, skimmed, low-fat)
3 Tbsp + 1 tsp (25 gram) custard powder or cornflour
5 Tbsp (25 gram) cocoa
4 Tbsp sugar

Preparation in advance
Combine custard powder, cocoa and sugar, and stir to a paste with one decilter (1/2 cup) cold milk.

Bring the rest of the milk to a boil, and add the paste while whisking the milk. The custard will have thickened within one minute. Lower the heat and let it simmer for two more minutes while you keep stirring. Pour the custard in a bowl immediately and cover with plastic foil.

To serve
Serve with whipped cream. A friend of mine told me her mother served this with a whipped-creamlike substance of whipped eggwhites mixed with egg yolks whisked with sugar. I don't know what this concotion is called, but it is akin to tiramisu without mascarpone.

Hopjes custard (with coffee) and caramel custard
I always take my coffee black, no sugar or milk. But I do love Hopjes custard, a typically Dutch custard version which is prepared with coffee, cream and burnt sugar. If you leave out the coffee and replace it with milk, you've prepared caramel custard. What 'Hopjes' means, you can read below. Coffee is lacking in the Dutch supermarket-version of hopjes custard. This is what it's made with: 'milk, liquid milk particles, modified cornflour, cornflour, thickening agent (E407), flavouring, colouring agents (annatto, E150d'. Annatto also has an E-number (E160b), and E150d is sulphite ammonia, a (chemical) caramel that is also used as colouring agent in cola. I suspect the suggestion of coffee comes from the 'flavouring'. But annatto was already an ingrediënt in the original custardpowder in 1837.
Dessert for 4 persons; preparation in advance 1 minute; preparation 10 minutes.

Hopjes custardIngrediënts
6 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp water
4 deciliter (14 fl.oz or 1 2/3 cup) milk (for caramel custard 5 deciliter/17 fl.oz/1 1/8 cup milk)
3 Tbsp + 1 tsp (25 gram) custard powder or cornflour
1 deciliter freshly prepared, strong black coffee (just for hopjes custard)

Preparation in advance
Make a paste of custard powder and 2 Tbsp cold milk.

Sprinkle the sugar in a pan. Melt the sugar on temperate heat until dark red.  Add water, the sugar will steam and hiss and become hard. Then add the rest of the milk. Sir with a wooden spoon until the caramel has dissolved. Pour in the custard powder/milk paste, and whisk until  the custard has thickened. Take it off the fire, and add the still hot coffee. The coffee must not boil. Whisk until the custard is smooth again and immediately pour the custard into a bowl. Cover with plastic foil and let it cool.

To serve
Like (or even with) chocolate custard.

Orange custard
If you have a lactase deficiency, you still can eat custard! This orange custard is based on orange juice and is thickened with eggs and cornflour. You can alter the taste by using blueberry juice or redcurrantjuice instead of orange juice.
Commercial orange custard is -at least in the Netherlands- always with milk. I only found the variation 'orange-mango custard', which containst 'milk, whey, modiefied cornstarch, cornstarch, salt, thickning agent: carragene, flourings, colouring agent: annatto'. So, the fruity taste is synthetic, and the orange colour is artificial.
Dessert for 4 persons; preparation in advance 10 minutes; preparation 15 minutes.

Orange custardIngrediënts
2.5 decilter (1 cup) freshly squeezed orange juice (from 3 to 4 oranges)
2 Tbsp lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
3 eggs, yolks and white separated
grated peel from 1 orange
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp cornflour
4 Tbsp sugar

Preparation in advance
Pour boiling water over one orange to remove the protecting wax layer, then grate the orange peel. If you use a zesteur, cut the long strips smaller. Squeeze the oranges, strain the juice. Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice.
Beat the yolks with sugar.
Stir a paste of cornflour with a little orange juice

In a pan, combine cornflour paste with egg yolks and sugar, and add orange and lemon juice while stirring. Add orange peel. Bring to a boil, using a whisk or handmixer. If you are afraid the custard will curdle, use a bain marie (hot-water bath). Remove the custard from the fire and pour it into a bowl when it has thickened enough.
Beat the egg whites into peaks, add the still hot custard and combine. Let cool.

To serve
This refreshing custard must be eaten when completely cooled.

All descriptions of ingredients

Annatto-seeds in their podAnnatto - A colouring agent, extracted from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana) which is indigenous in tropical regions of South America. The seeds were originally used as body paint by certain Indian tribes (the orgin of the term 'redskins'). The substance is not only insect-repellant, but also protects the skin against the sun, so using annatto this way was a brilliant idea. In Europe, annatto is known as E160b. It is the traditional colouring agent in custard powder, and also used in p.e. Cheddar cheese.
Carragene - Like agar, this comes from red algae (Chondrus crispus). It is also known as Irish moss. The dried algae have to be washed before use, steeped in cold water for thirty minutes, and then boiled for fifteen minutes. The resulting liquid is strained, and will congeal during cooling..
De originele Bird's custardCustard powder - Custard powder was first 'invented' in 1837 by the Brit Alfred Bird (1811-1878) because his wife was allergic to eggs. The original custard powder is made from cornflour with annatto (see above), a little salt and some flavouring. All you have to do is combine custard powder and sugar with boiling milk. There is also instant custard, to which sugar and powdered are added. All you need to add yourself is water. And if even that is too much work, there is a large range of custards in the dairy department of the supermarket.
I have no idea what the situation is outside of my own country (the Netherlands), but here Bird's Custard is difficult to come by, though it is not impossible. Easily available is Dr.Oetker custard powder. This contains an extra colouring agent (beta-carotene, maybe cheaper than annatto?), and has a rather ovewhelming artificial vanilla flavour. The original Bird's Custard has a more subtle taste.
Modified (corn)flour/starch - Has been treated with chemicals to make it enhance performance in diverse applications.
Haags HopjeHopjes - A typically Dutch sweet, individually packed in a paper wrapper (see picture). This candy was created at the end of the 18th century by a confectioner in The Hague. In an appartment above his shop lived a former diplomat, Baron Hendrik Hop (1723-1808). The baron loved to drink coffee, which he drank with cream and sugar. One night he left his coffee on the stove, and when he rose in the morning he discovered that the coffee had thickened into  lumps, which actually tasted very good. When his physician advised him to abstain from drinking coffee, the ingenious baron asked his neighbour to recreate the coffee chunks. These 'chunks of Baron Hop' immediately became very popular, they were even exported to the court of the Russian Czar. Hopjes are made with burnt sugar, coffee, butter and cream (source: the Dutch Wikipedia).
Tapioca - Starch extracted from manioc or cassave, a woody shrub with a bulbous tuber that orginiates from South America. The tuber is rich in starch, but it also contains cyanide, so it is really not advisable to use cassave unprepared. But tapioca is safe to use.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)

  • Mia Snelder, Prisma kookboek. Sleutel tot de kookkunst. Prisma boeken, Utrecht/Antwerpen (1964)
  • C.J. Wannée, Kookboek van de Amsterdamse huishoudschool. 18th edition, revised and edited by R. Lotgering-Hillebrand. Amsterdam (1976 or 1977?)