Custard

Thomas Dawson’s 16th century recipe for custard is, like many recipes of the time, a little short on details.

Original recipe:

To make a Custard.
Breake your egges into a bowle, and put your Creame into another bowle, and streine your egges into the creame, and put in saffron, cloues and mace, and a litle synamom and ginger, and if you will, some suger and butter, and season it with salt, and melt your butter, and stirre it with the ladle a good while, and dubbe your Custard with dates or currants.

No measurements or baking instructions of any kind are given…yikes.

Still, apart from the long list of spices included in this one, custards are pretty simple – just milk (or cream) and eggs. Most recipes I’ve seen use a proportion of about one egg to every cup of liquid, so I thought I’d be pretty safe if I stuck to that ratio.

I was little less sure about how to bake this; early custard recipes were usually baked inside a pastry case. By the 16th century, when this recipe was written, they could be baked either in individual cups or as a pastry filling. Thomas Dawson’s recipe gives no indication which method should be used. I chose to go the simple route and bake mine in ramekins, mostly because making pastry would just be extra work.

My version:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup of cream
  • 1/4 tsp each saffron, cloves, mace, ginger
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • about half a cup of currants

Gently heat the cream and stir in the spices, salt, and sugar (it’s not actually necessary to scald the cream, but heating it helps incorporate the spices). Temper the egg by pouring in the heated cream very slowly and whisking continuously. Pour the mixture into 2 six-ounce ramekins and sprinkle in the currants. Put in a hot water bath and place in a 350 degree oven. Bake for about 35-40 minutes, until custard has set.

I didn’t heat the spices in the cream for my first batch. It still tasted good, but the spices all floated up to the top instead of mixing in, and didn’t taste quite as flavorful.

Note: I have no idea if 16th century cooks would have used a hot water bath for baking custards. However, the technique was around at the time, so I decided I was justified in using it.

I didn’t add any butter to my custards because I thought it would be too rich for a custard that’s already made with heavy cream. Plus, Thomas Dawson says to add butter “if you will.” I don’t will.

Tasting notes:

This made a wonderful, simple dessert. I initially was worried it would taste too strong with all the spices in it, but it was actually just about perfect. Spices were so expensive in Thomas Dawson’s day that having them was a status symbol; so if you want to show off your wealth and make all your friends jealous, feel free to go ahead and add even more spice to your custard.

References:

Davidson, A. (2006). Custard. In A. Davidson & T. Jaine (Eds.), The Oxford companion to food (pp. 237-238). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawson, T. (1587). The good husvvifes ievvell. London: Iohn Wolfe. Retrieved from http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A19957.0001.001

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