In 1838, a well-to-do New York City woman, likely of the Hoppin family, recorded in her cookbook a dessert that she had served with great success to company so that she would remember how to serve it again. Consisting of two stirred custards—that is, saucepan custards—one made with the whites of eggs and the other with the yolks, the dessert played upon a white/yellow color scheme that was fashionable at the time in the serving of cakes. The writer’s extension of the conceit to the serving paraphernalia was typical.
When having company to dinner, as when the Whitneys were here for a dessert, make Lemmon Custards of the yolks of eggs, making them yellow, and take the whites of the Lemmon receipt with one or two more eggs for white boiled Custard seasoned with mace and orange peel pounded very fine and sifted so as not to speck them, and add a little cream. This is the answer instead of whips in the summer or any time. Put the custards into the low jelly glasses & serve them on the dinner table on the china custard stands, one white & one yellow, to look very handsome, or sometimes put the white custards in glass handle cups and set the yellow & white on the glass stand.
Hoppin Family Recipes, American, 1838-1841 (New York Public Library)
It is difficult for us today to grasp this dessert. We have never seen nineteenth-century jelly glasses, glass-handled custard cups, or custard stands, and we think of stirred custards as components of other desserts (like trifle or floating island) or as sauces, not as principal desserts. Above all, we are puzzled by the custards themselves, particularly the white one, made with egg whites. We do not understand how custard containing egg whites can be prepared in a saucepan. Won’t the result simply be a curdled mess? In fact, no. From the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s, the English-speaking world knew many stirred custards (or “creams,” as they were also called), both as desserts and as accompaniments to cake at evening parties. Many of these custards were thickened with whole eggs or with egg whites only, and when properly prepared these custards were perfectly smooth
Indeed, the most common type, plain stirred custard, or “boiled” custard—which was not boiled, of course; the name merely distinguished it from baked custard—was among this group. As originally made in Anglo-America, its basic ingredients were milk or cream, whole eggs, and sugar. But by 1884, when Mary Lincoln, the first principal of the Boston Cooking School, published her cookbook, the common wisdom on the eggs had shifted. “Boiled custard is much smoother when made only with the yolks of eggs,” Lincoln pronounced, dismissing traditional whole-egg boiled custard as inevitably lumpy. Regrettably, once egg white was deemed undesirable in plain boiled custard, all of the other traditional stirred custards that contained it fell under suspicion and, soon enough, these custards, too, were no longer made or even thought possible—and hence our bafflement at the Hoppin writer’s dessert.
Why did traditional whole-egg boiled custard disappear and take with it so many other lovely stirred custards? The term “crème anglaise” hints at the answer. This is the French name for plain stirred custard—and, nowadays, it is a typical American name for the custard too.*
Starting in the mid-seventeenth century, with the publication of ground-breaking cookbooks by La Varenne and other new-wave French chefs, (privileged) Anglo-America increasingly fell under the sway of Gallic culinary sorcery. Notwithstanding Franco-phobic pushback—and there was plenty of that—wealthy households on both sides of the Atlantic had adopted Frenchified (if not exactly French) fare for company occasions by the mid- nineteenth century (the English somewhat earlier than the Americans), and by the end of the nineteenth century, the upper-middle classes had followed suit. Meanwhile, French culinary ideas also permeated everyday cooking. French culinary signifiers like creaming, breading and deep-frying, patty shells, mayonnaise, meringue toppings, and many others are rampant in late-Victorian American cookbooks, especially in those of the influential Fannie Farmer, who was Mrs. Lincoln’s successor as principal of the Boston Cooking School.
Traditional boiled custard was swept up in this sea change. The French made plain stirred custard with egg yolks only, and since the French were presumed to always know best, the French way became the usual American way. To be sure, it did not help the cause of traditional whole-egg plain stirred custard that the custard is tricky, trickier than yolk stirred custard, which many home cooks find plenty tricky enough. Besides curdling at a lower temperature than yolk custard, whole-egg plain stirred custard has very little “tolerance.” While yolk stirred custard thickens gradually in a range of nearly twenty degrees, whole-egg custard only begins to thicken at around 160⁰F and then becomes as thick as it can get, without curdling, at 165⁰F. Just a degree or two beyond this point and—drat!—it’s ruined. Whole-egg stirred custard requires a knack that was quickly lost once the custard was no longer routinely made—and so the custard was deemed a bad recipe from the benighted (pre-French) past and was forgotten. This is a pity. Whole-egg stirred custard is perfectly smooth when carefully cooked, and to many tastes it is nicer than that made with yolks: thicker yet lighter on the tongue, with a delightful slippery quality.
An even greater pity is the loss of the many other lovely stirred custards that went to their grave along with traditional boiled custard, among them the Hoppin writer’s white and yellow desserts. Precisely how the Hoppin writer made her white stirred custard we cannot know, for she did not record the recipe in her cookbook. But we can speculate. Since she was after stark, unmistakably white custard, I would guess that she started with a recipe like the following (which was popular) and substituted whites for yolks and orange (and mace) for lemon. Apparently, she also replaced (most of) the cream called for in this recipe with milk. In testing, I discovered that this is possible but dicey, as milk, having less fat than cream, also provides less tolerance, making the custard more likely to curdle (or separate, which is what mine did, and which is less dire than curdling but still not what one wants). So I retested with cream and liked the result very much. My adapted recipe, “White Custard with Orange and Mace,” is posted in Adapted Recipes.
Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery, 1837
Beat well together a quart of thick cream and the yolks of eight eggs. Then gradually beat in half a pound of powdered loaf-sugar, and the grated rind of three large lemons. Put the mixture into a porcelain skillet and set it on hot coals till it comes to a boil; then take it off, and stir it till nearly cold. Squeeze the juice of the lemons into a bowl; pour the cream upon it, and continue to stir it till quite cold. You may serve it up in a glass bowl, in glass cups, or in jelly glasses. Eat it with sweetmeats and tarts.
The Hoppin writer did not write down a recipe for her bright-yellow lemon custard, either, but again we can speculate. It could not have been simply the Lemon Cream above or some version of today’s plain stirred custard with lemon. Made with cream or milk, these custards would have been too pale in color to have cut it in her color scheme. She must instead have made one of the old water-based stirred lemon custards (or “creams”), many of which were thickened with egg yolks and/or whole eggs and were vivid yellow. (There was also a popular version with egg whites only, which is transparent. Amelia Simmons, our earliest published cookbook author, has a recipe that is very much worth making.) These custards were tremendously fashionable in Anglo-America from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. But the French did not know them, and what the French did not know, fashionable late-Victorian America tossed out. What a loss! Contrary to modern expectations (at least mine), water-based stirred custards can be cooked to a higher temperature and have greater tolerance than milk-based stirred custards—even when whole eggs or, indeed, only egg whites are used. And they are lovely.
Water-based lemon custards thickened entirely with egg yolks taste unpleasantly eggy to me—and perhaps they did to people of the past as well, for most recipes call for whole eggs or egg whites. So, while the Hoppin writer apparently prepared her yellow custard with egg yolks only, I would prefer the following delicious, decidedly yellow custard, which is made with whole eggs—and whose yellow can be intensified by the addition of one or possibly two (but, to my taste, not more) of the yolks left over from the white custard. For my recipe, see “Yellow Stirred Custard with Lemon” in Adapted Recipes.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, 1824
Pare the rind very thin from four fresh lemons, squeeze the juice, and strain it—put them both into a quart of water, sweeten it to your taste, add the whites of six eggs, beat to a froth; set it over the fire, and keep stirring until it thickens, but do not let it boil—then pour it in a bowl; when cold, strain it through a sieve, put it on the fire, and add the yelks of the eggs—stir it till quite thick, and serve it in glasses.
*Ironically, the term “crème anglaise” translates as “English cream,” not because the French believed that the custard was an English invention but because they perceived it as characteristic of the English. At least one other custard, now forgotten, also shows up under the same name in seventeenth-century French cookbooks.