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Published: Tuesday, 2/10/2009

Puddings and custards showcase desserts

There's no word for pudding in the French language, although there are plenty of pudding-like desserts such as mousse, custard, creme brulee, creme anglaise, pastry cream, and oufs a la neige (individual "snow eggs," sometimes called floating islands).

Pudding may well come from the British via Yorkshire pudding, a cross between a popover and a souffle, according to the Food Lover's Companion.

Here in America, we have chocolate pudding, rice pudding, and vanilla, banana, lemon, or coconut pudding. When I grew up, most cooks made these from scratch. My mother, being a "modern" cook, always made them using a box mix.

Today's box mixes have expanded from those cooked on the stove top to instant (simply mixed, they set up when refrigerated) and countless shelf-stable varieties, which in their individual containers are great for lunch boxes or school lunches.

The contemporary cook can use the pre-made pudding or opt for gourmet recipes. I can't tell you the number of times that cooks tell me how amazed they are at how easy it is to make a homemade pudding, custard, mousse, pastry cream, or lemon curd. And they are amazed at how inexpensive the homemade versions are and how easily you can pull them together with the ingredients you have on hand.

You can also make tapioca pudding using granulated tapioca usually cooked with a combination of sugar, salt, beaten egg, and milk.

Unlike custards, which are always made with eggs, puddings are thickened with eggs, cornstarch, or flour. They can be light in texture, such as blancmange, or more dense, such as bread pudding.

A mousse has fluffiness due to the addition of whipped cream or beaten egg whites. Often these are fortified with gelatin. A bavarian is fortified with gelatin and custard and fruit flavorings, often in a mold.

Then there's a fine distinction between creme brulee, custard, and flan.

Creme brulee is translated "burnt cream." It describes a chilled, stirred custard that is sprinkled with brown and granulated sugar and caramelized under a broiler or with a salamander, a small torch. The caramelized topping becomes brittle, creating a crisp contrast to the smooth, creamy custard beneath.

A custard is a pudding-like dessert made with a sweetened mixture of milk and eggs that can be either baked or stirred on the stove top. I prefer the custard baked in a water bath. It sets up so well that a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. It's a great dish to serve when someone is not feeling well because it has a soothing taste and texture. When you're feeling good, you want to eat two portions.

The flan is a famous Spanish baked custard made with milk and coated with caramel. A common dessert in Mexico, it is made with condensed milk and can be flavored. "I've had pineapple flan, lemon, banana, coconut, orange juice-flavored, and even chocolate," says Lina Barrera, an expert in Mexican cuisine.

I love a baked custard pie but it's a dessert I've never made. However, if I'm at a bake sale at a church or school, I'll always buy that custard pie. Once I read that the secret of a great baked custard pie (meaning the crust is not soggy) is that the crust is pre-baked before the filling is added and then the pie baked.

This all leads to trifles, charlottes, and tiramisu, which are much more complicated desserts with more ingredients.

If you are pressed for time and money, you can't go wrong with puddings. They are easy to make, inexpensive, and always delicious.



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