Twice as Tasty

Golden Baked Custard

Once you’re comfortable making baked custard, you’re just a topping away from crème brûlée or flan

By Julie Laing
Photo by Julie Laing.

Baked custard seems like an old-fashioned dessert – until you realize it’s simply the classier crème brûlée or flan without a sugary coating. Then it takes on a status that seems outsized for its ingredients: milk, eggs, sugar and salt lightly flavored by vanilla and nutmeg.

My grandmother baked custard for me as an afterschool snack, pouring it into one large dish and scooping out servings. For single servings or a fancy dessert upgrade, I instead bake individual cups of custard in a water bath.

I also loosely followed her recipe. I might mix low-fat milk and cream if those are in my fridge. If I replace the whole egg with two egg yolks, the texture becomes silkier – and a brighter yellow with farm-fresh eggs. I enjoy eating this simple custard at room temperature but set it uncovered in the refrigerator for at least two hours when planning a crispy sugar or soft caramel topping.

For crème brûlée, you’ll need a kitchen torch; trying to caramelize the surface under a broiler usually leaves burned spots and might crack ramekins that can’t take the heat. I’ve sprinkled on and torched raw, turbinado and other sugars. Ultrafine sugar was the easiest to melt evenly without burning the sugar or curdling the custard.

To make a true flan, you coat the ramekin with caramel syrup before pouring in the custard and baking. Once you’re comfortable making custard, the prebaking coating becomes less daunting. For a simpler version, loosen the chilled custard, flip it onto a plate and drizzle with caramel or use another topping, like fruit syrup, fresh berries or chocolate curls.

Golden Baked Custard

Serves 4

1 cup whole milk

1 egg

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pinch of freshly grated or ground nutmeg

In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, scald the milk by heating it just until bubbles appear around the edge, stirring often. Remove the pan from the heat before the milk boils.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg until just blended; stir in the sugar and salt. Slowly pour in the hot milk in a small stream while stirring constantly. Stir in the vanilla.

Place four 4- to 6-ounce custard cups or ramekins in an 8-by-8 inch or larger pan so that they don’t touch one another or the pan’s sides. Divide the liquid among the custard cups; sprinkle with nutmeg. Carefully pour hot water into the pan, surrounding the cups without splashing the custard, until the level of the water is even with the top of the custard.

Carefully set the pan on the middle rack of the oven, checking that the cups still don’t touch. Bake at 350°F for 40-45 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center of a custard comes out clean. Cool to room temperature, and then serve or refrigerate until completely chilled.

Julie Laing is a Bigfork-based cookbook author and food blogger at TwiceAsTasty.com.