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English Custard

To almost anybody brought up in Britain since the middle of the 20th Century, custard is an essential element of most desserts. Ask the average British person to describe custard and you will be told that it is a thickish yellow sauce that is poured over apple pie, spotted dick or rhubarb crumble. Yes, that is the "custard" that is familiar to most of us, but that description is dead wrong.

The "custard" that most of us Brits were brought up with is actually a phony. The blame lies with a Mr Alfred Bird - a household name in Britain. He is responsible for the misapprehension with which most of us have lived for years. Let me explain.

But first, what is "custard" really? True custard is milk thickened with egg yolk and usually sweetened. In Britain it is called "Egg Custard". Custard can be made by heating the egg yolk and milk in a saucepan (a double-boiler is better for reasons we'll get to in a minute) or by baking in an oven. Egg yolk will thicken milk if it is cooked gently, but if it is allowed to get too hot, the custard will curdle. For that reason, cooking custard in a double boiler will slow down the heat transfer sufficiently to allow the sauce to thicken without curdling.

There are many variations on basic custard. If starch is added to the mix the resulting custard becomes "Blancmange". Blancmange is a form of custard that has been set in a mould; it is a semi-rigid pudding. Flavourings are often added to Blancmange to make chocolate, strawberry and other varieties.

A similar starch thickened custard forms the filling of the popular "Vanilla Slices" (aka "Custard Slices"). A Vanilla Slice is a pastry treat that flies out of the door at Blighty's Tuck Store every week. It comprises a thick slice of custard between two layers of very flaky pastry. The top is covered in fondant with a wavy chocolate design.

Baked custard forms the filling of the equally popular "Custard Tarts". Small pastry tart shells are filled with baked custard and sprinkled with nutmeg.

If you have ever dined out at a fine food restaurant, you may have seen other custard variants on the dessert menu. Two of the most popular are "Creme Caramel" and "Creme Brulee". Creme Caramel is a baked custard served with a thin sauce of caramelized sugar. Creme Brulee is a baked custard onto which sugar has been melted, by hand, with a very hot naked flame.

Custard does not have to a dessert dish. One savoury variant is well-known to most people. It is called "Quiche". A Quiche is a large tart made from unsweetened baked custard into which vegetables or herbs have been added.

So, let's get back to the very famous and popular Mr Bird again. It seems that Mr Bird's wife was allergic to eggs so, early in the 19th Century, he invented a form of "custard" that did not require any egg at all in it's preparation. Bird's Custard is as familiar to the average British person as the nose on his face. But, it is not really a true custard at all. Bird's custard is essentially vanilla-flavoured corn starch. When Bird's Custard Powder is boiled with milk the result is the thick yellow sauce that is familiar to so many British people.

Bird's custard is also available in an "instant" version. Bird's Instant Custard Powder contains powdered milk and sugar and can be prepared by simply mixing it with boiling water.

The nutritional value of custards is questionable. Egg yolk is a rich source of cholesterol while corn starch and sugar are carbohydrates. If you enjoy custard in moderation you can rely on my grandmother's nutritional guideline of "a little of what you fancy does you good".

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