I almost missed my flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport once, when luggage scanning machines noticed that one of my bags was full of cartons of a liquid so dense it was almost solid. The tension finally broke with a murmur of approval from the security workers. They had opened my bag and discovered the source.
“Le blah blah l’Américain blah blah oui oui blahblahblah le crème Anglaise.”
Translation: “The American wants to bring home some crème Anglaise. And really, can you blame him?”
They waved me through, all smiles and back-pats, but we all knew the deal. Had there been a moelleux au chocolat and a microwave in the break room, I might have arrived home a carton short. Everyone in Paris knows about those chocolate muffin things with molten chocolate insides, and what happens when you drench the whole business in crème Anglaise, which translates into “English cream,” and is often referred to as “pouring custard.” Its thick, velvety creaminess permeates the crannies of the baked goods onto which it often is poured. There was never enough on my plate. I vowed, someday, to drink it.
While in a Paris supermarket, I noticed that crème Anglaise was available in liter cartons like the ones in which you buy soy milk. I bought one and clawed it open on the sidewalk. It was not the same as the freshly made stuff in restaurants, but thinner and more drinkable, which was appropriate given that drinking it was my goal. It was like an extra smooth version of eggnog, I realized, minus the nutmeg. And that was my first inkling of the existence of a gradient between thick and thin drinking custards.
Freshly made crème Anglaise occupies the extreme viscosity end of that drinking custard spectrum. At the other end is store-bought eggnog, which isn’t really a custard as much as a thick liquid. It doesn’t really count. For our purposes, the edible spectrum of drinking custard extends from crème Anglaise to high-end, homemade eggnog — assuming it can hold itself together like a custard should. But no further.
When you make eggnog at home, luckily, you can make it as high-end and French as you want it to be. By French, I mean thick, creamy and smooth. For practical purposes, that means more cream, more eggs and more stirring.
The finest eggnog recipe I know, from Luci Brieger of Lifeline Produce in Victor, is essentially a thinner version of the crème Anglaise you’d find in the dining rooms of Paris, more along the lines of what Parisians can sip from cartons they got at the supermarket, plus nutmeg. In other words, worth getting into a fight with armed airport security agents over.
It’s made via a nearly identical process as dessert crème Anglaise, but with fewer eggs and less cream. Thin enough to drink, it is still very much a custard.
So here are the two recipes that represent both ends of the drinking custard spectrum.
Makes 2 cups
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
3 tablespoons sugar
2-inch section vanilla pod, split
Combine milk and cream and heat slowly with the vanilla pod. Meanwhile beat the yolks and sugar together. When milk is about to simmer, with bubbles forming on the edge of the pot, add it in a very slow, thin stream to the yolks, beating furiously the whole time with an egg beater or immersion blender. You want the yolks to heat up very slowly as the milk is incorporated. If, at this point, it doesn’t look like scrambled eggs, continue. Put the mixture back in the milk pan (sans vanilla pod) and heat very slowly, stirring often. Swirl the mixture around in the pot and look at the bottom. As soon as a layer of custard starts to build on the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat, pour into a vessel and allow to cool. It only takes a few seconds, and is easy to overdo at this point. Alternatively, wait until it coats a spoon and you can streak it with your finger.
This is the thick stuff, restaurant grade, and is meant to be poured on top of something similarly decadent. Amazingly, you can make it even richer and thicker by going full cream. But if you’re looking for something to drink, look below.
Makes 8 cups
6 cups milk
2 cups cream
3 whole eggs
3/4 sugar (I prefer maple syrup, to taste)
Pinch of salt
Fresh ground nutmeg
Combine milk and cream and heat slowly with the sugar and salt. Meanwhile beat the eggs. When milk is about to simmer, with bubbles forming on the edge of the pot, add it in a very slow, thin stream to the eggs, beating furiously the whole time with an egg beater or immersion blender. “Slowly, a little at a time, so you don’t cook your eggs,” says Brieger. If, at this point, it doesn’t look like scrambled eggs, continue. Put the mixture back in the milk pan and heat very slowly, stirring often. Add vanilla and ground nutmeg to taste. When it coats a spoon or starts to accumulate at the bottom, it’s done.
Whether you call it eggnog or crème Anglaise, the thickness of your custard can be altered by adding more egg (or yolk), as well as by adjusting the cream content. For something thicker, use pure heavy cream (and invite me over). For something thinner, you could combine the milk with almond milk instead of cream. You could even use pure almond or cashew milk, which will result in something that isn’t really custardy, but still remarkably thick and smooth full, thanks to the egg.
Once you figure out how thick you like your drinking custard, you can then turn your attention to what you will mix it with, and in what proportions.