Not a single one of us should be afraid to make custards. We don't actually need to know how to temper eggs, or what the recipe means by bain marie this time. We really only need to be able to identify a good jiggle.
Firstly, we should be unafraid because we have options. There are the sneaky triumphs of creamy lemon and lime possets that don’t involve eggs or baking at all, clever 5-minute blender puddings, and other workarounds (in fact, our currently-baking cookbook Genius Desserts will have quite a few of these in the “Puddings and Other Comforts” section when it jiggles onto shelves this September.).
But it turns out that even making traditional baked egg custards—despite their persnickety reputation and elusive smooth, spoonable texture—doesn’t require any fluency in pastry school lingo or special skills, either.
Here's how I know: Unlike in lengthy, micromanaging recipes you might have seen for crème caramel or brûlée, the legendary French cooking teacher Madeleine Kamman’s instructions for Butterscotch Creams—published in her first book The Making of a Cook in 1971—were barely 50 words long.
Kamman had dispensed with many of the steps that can act as roadblocks to less-experienced and can’t-be-bothered cooks: There was no mention of tempering eggs, no smoking caramel to tend, not even a bain marie (or even the somewhat clearer "water bath") to decipher and rig.
"It is inscrutably good," longtime Food52 community member and author of The Comfort Food Diaries Emily Nunn said when she emailed me about this recipe. "I have made them many times and am always slightly amazed by how glorious they are for the minimal effort involved. Everyone goes crazy."
At Food52 HQ, we tried the recipe as written many times, to many of our cooks' chagrin (and my delight)—hot cream going straight into cool yolks; butterscotch that's stirred together but not deeply caramelized; custards exposed directly to hot air with no water bath. To kitchen wonks, it all felt wrong. And with shocking consistency, it worked, and was polished off by the discerning vultures on our staff.
There is, however, one bit of worthwhile fuss I'm adding back in. By the time Kamman had revamped her book into the new 1,200-page opus The New Making of a Cook in 1997, all the baked custard recipes now had water baths as insurance. (Incidentally, Nunn had always defied the original recipe on this point, too.)
Although we discovered you can get by just fine without it, the cushion of water prevents the edges of the cup from ever going above 212° F and fills the oven with steam for gentler, more even baking and the silky-smoothest texture. You're still just looking for a good jiggle to know when your custards are done, but now you have a more forgiving window to find it.
Here, then, is Kamman's updated Butterscotch Creams recipe, with a water bath but still a welcoming lack of frills, for everyone in need of something rich, smooth, and sweetly cold. Everyone.
- 1/2 cup (100g) dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cups (475ml) light or heavy cream (heavy cream recommended if not using a water bath)
- Pinch of salt
- 8 large egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Roughly chopped toasted almonds, for sprinkling
Photos by Bobbi Lin
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to longtime Food52 community member, old-fashioned custard sleuth, and The Comfort Food Diaries author Emily Nunn for this one!