Butterscotch Pudding Meets Creme Brûlée (but Skips a Few Steps)

June 13, 2018

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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Janet M. March 6, 2022
While custard made with egg yolks and cream are silky and luxurious, a perfectly acceptable family desert with whole milk and whole eggs is nothing to be afraid of. After first making this in high school home ec nearly 65 years ago, it re-entered my repertoire in looking for a sugar free low carb desert for my diabetic husband. 4 eggs, 2.5 c milk, 1 tsp vanilla, the allulose or other equivalent of 4 T sugar beaten lightly, poured in ramekins, dusted with freshly grated nutmeg, and baked in a water bath at 325 F for about 40 minutes produces a tender and delicious baked custard. I serve with artificially sweetened fresh or frozen fruit for him, unsweeted fruit for me. So easy, so cheap, and quite delicious. Folks who like things sweeter or want to use real sugar can always add more
Phyllis February 27, 2022
Could you use 4 whole eggs instead of 8 yolks? I always end up discarding the leftover whites not being a fan of egg white preparations.
Bebewatson February 25, 2022
Know what’s REALLY ANNOYING? That pop up ad for FOOD52 completely blocking the
page…it takes forever to get rid of it. What a waste of time, especially when I’m already a subscriber to these emails!
Pam March 25, 2021
These Micosoft commercials are annoying
maureen236 June 14, 2018
Hi. Do you think this might work with almond milk?
Kristen M. June 14, 2018
Oh, interesting—I've never tried it, but I see there are other baked custards using almond milk on the internet, so it's possible. If you do try it, please let us know how it goes!
maureen236 June 15, 2018
Will try and report back! Thanks.
Liz D. June 13, 2018
The one thing the video should have shown is what the "jiggle" looks like when the custards are done. It skips right from putting them into the oven to the chilled final product?
Kristen M. June 13, 2018
Hi Liz, I agree and I'm sorry we missed capturing this detail. It sounds like it was a hectic shoot day. I'll try to post a visual on my Instagram later and link to it here.