My wife can’t cook at all. She made chocolate mousse. An antler got stuck in my throat.Rodney Dangerfield
Mousse, pronounced just like the animal: Moose, has nothing to do with our cat (also: Moose). Funny thing, while writing this article, I had to go back through and double-check my spelling on “mousse.” I kept writing our cat’s name since that’s what I’m used to doing. Silly.
Puddings, custard, and mousse are too often neglected and forgotten. It makes sense. What’s so special about that gloppy box pudding stuff? Not much. But actual homemade puddings are unforgettable. A great custard is always memorable. I’m still dreaming about the coconut custard I had at a Thai place a couple towns away. It was a total mix-up and not what the oldest and I had ordered “to go” and yet, the oldest and I still think about it. It was the BEST mistake ever.
Homemade mousse is a whole ‘nother level altogether. It feels fancy, yet comforting, all at the same time. It’s like that great pair of heels that manage to work with jeans and your favorite LBD, yet are also surprisingly comfortable. Check out the Table of Contents located right below the list of cookbooks in this article to zip around where you need to go, or read this whole rootin’ tootin’ article to understand all things pudding, mousse, and custard (and flummery, blancmange, panna cotta, junket, and Bavarian cream). Whew! This is a family tree with a lot of deliciousness.
Cookbooks Referenced in this Article
Cookbook fans (like me!) are probably annoyed by clicking through link after link in an article, while also trying to read said article. I know I tire of that too. I end up with a heap of browser windows open and become lost in the rabbit hole of cookbook browsing. So, every cookbook mentioned in this article appears below. I did swap out my version of How to Cook Everything and Gastronomy of Italy with the updated, revised editions because that just makes sense.
How to Cook Everything―Completely Revised Twentieth Anniversary Edition: Simple Recipes for Great Food (2019) by Mark Bittman (Amazon) (eBay)
What are Pudding, Custard, and Mousse?
Depending on what side of the globe you are on, pudding can be savory or sweet or it can be a general term for any dessert. It can also stand for a specific item, like here in the US. For all the similar homey feelings these desserts may stir up, pudding, custard, and mousse aren’t interchangeable terms. How do these items compare? What is the difference between a mousse and a pudding and a custard? IS there a difference? Short answer: Yes. Yes, there is.
Pudding, any of several foods whose common characteristic is a relatively soft, spongy, and thick texture. In the United States, puddings are nearly always sweet desserts of milk or fruit juice variously flavoured and thickened with cornstarch, arrowroot, flour, tapioca, rice, bread, or eggs. The rarer savoury puddings are thickened vegetable purées, soufflé-like dishes, or like corn pudding, custards. Hasty pudding is a cornmeal mush.Pudding, Britannica, Accessed 4/13/2021.
Custard has a close relation to both pudding and mousse. Baked or cooked, eaten cold or warm, savory or sweet, custard seems to have no end in variation. Just like pudding, custard makes a great layering base. You can use it to make custard ice cream (which is worth writing home about), baked custards, and as a base in pies, tarts, or even crème brûlée. A runny custard works as an ice cream base (which is a fab way to “save” a messed up custard), as well as a “pour over” sauce on traditional British puddings, like sticky toffee pudding (mmmmmm).
See? People even sing about them! The song above is catchy and funny (with a chorus likely to get stuck in your head). Anyway, let’s take a look at the family tree of custard. It’s a big one. Serve a “still-baked” custard in a ramekin (little container), and that boiled custard is a pot de crème. Still-baking, as you probably figured out, is a fancy term used to describe not mixing an item. Add a little sweet white wine to egg yolks and sugar to spoon over berries or cake, and you have the French Sabayon, an Italian dessert custard adapted from the Italian zabaglione that uses Marsala. Dust the top of a custard with sugar, grab a kitchen torch, and you’ve made crème brûlée. Look at you! Adding caramel to the unbaked custard, then baking it, results in a crème caramel.
Recipes can’t seem to agree as to whether a crème Catalana, Catalan cream, or crema de Sant Josep, is different from crème brûlée. Some seem to consider these interchangeable desserts, yet in the variations I’ve seen, crème Catalana uses milk instead of cream, adds a little cornstarch, and (sometimes) a heated iron disk instead of a kitchen torch, and citrus peels instead of vanilla. But, I don’t see that it’s baked, like a crème brûlée. If anyone from the region, or someone more familiar with crème Catalana than I am (which isn’t hard) would care to share the details on the differences, please do so.
Skip the rest of the ingredient swaps, except for the cornstarch, and you have pastry cream or crème patisserie. That’s the stuff you’ll find used as fillings because it’s thicker and holds its shape. A thinner, stovetop version, crème Anglais, is a pourable custard used as a dessert topper, found drizzled over cakes, and for making waffles or French toast fancy. Crème Anglais is also used as the base for one of my favorites: Custard ice cream (and, again, a good way to make use of too runny custard).
Baked or stove-top, there are variations of custards around the world. Those shared above are just a small sample. Custards vary from region to region (as you can see in the case of crème Catalana and even flan, which sometimes refers to a baked custard, but is so confusing because of different languages and their meanings I’m not diving into that one). Flan is related, though it depends on the country of origin.
A custard relies on eggs. Cooked or stirred, stove-top custards or baked custards have eggs in common. A baked custard typically uses the whole egg and are cooked in a water bath, like a cheesecake. Says Joy of Baking, “Crème Anglaise (English Cream) is the French translation for custard sauce. There are two types of custard; cooked (stirred) and baked. The difference being that ‘baked’ custards contain whole eggs and are cooked ‘in’ a water bath ‘in’ the oven (think crème brûlée). In contrast, the ‘cooked’ or ‘stirred’ custard sauce (presented here) contains only egg yolks and is cooked ‘on’ the stove, oftentimes ‘over’ a water bath. The end result is a nice rich and smooth textured sauce that can be served, warm or cold, with cakes, pies, puddings, or fruit and is ideal for plated desserts.”
Pudding is a sweetened milk or cream-based mixture, thickened with a gelatinized starch (usually cornstarch or flour) that’s cooked on the stove. Custards are milk or cream-based and are typically firmer than pudding. Moreover, custard usually has to be baked with a water bath. The main difference between the two desserts lies in the use of eggs. Pudding involves cornstarch or flour as a thickener, while custard uses eggs as its secret weapon.
Mousse skips the thickener (though some more modern versions do use a little unflavored gelatin to “guarantee” an easy set, but it isn’t necessary if you follow the traditional directions and recipes), while pudding turns to cornstarch (among other things, as we learned above). Custard uses eggs and sometimes cornstarch or Bird’s Custard Powder, which uses corn flour. Cornstarch prevents the egg proteins from setting, (the fancy term in cooking is coagulation) so your cooked puddings and custards won’t have hunks of egg in there.
Pudding is cooked, sometimes baked. It’s thicker than mousse, which uses heavy cream or eggs in some way. Mousse needs to keep its lightness, so you won’t find thickeners like cornstarch in a mousse recipe. You don’t want to weigh it down. That would defeat the purpose of a mousse. If you want a thicker dessert, make a pudding or a custard instead.
Pudding and custard are substantial enough to be used as the layering agent. Yes, layering agent. Let’s roll with that. Mousse, however, would not “roll with that.” Mousse would pout, complain about the inhumanity of it all, and fold under that kind of pressure. It’s too much. Pudding and custard are the equivalent of adult yoga stars, while mousse possesses something closer to the body type of a middle schooler. Mousse lacks the muscle and can’t hold up much of anything, which is why you’ll see it topped with things like whipped cream or shaved chocolate for a little pizazz, and never used in a trifle or other layered dessert that depends on a firm footing for tidy (tasty) layers.
Savory or Sweet
The down-to-earth appeal of egg-based desserts is undeniable. Moist, rich, and sweet, they bring pleasure to the senses while soothing the soul. No wonder so many people in so many countries consider custards, puddings, and mousses prime examples of comfort food.Williams-Sonoma Simple Classics Cookbook, Weldon Owen Publishing (2000), Page 264.
While you may not be unfamiliar with the idea of a savory pudding, those traditional puddings have far more popularity in places other than the US. They are all the rage in countries around the world. You might be wondering if the same applies to mousse. Open up a vintage cookbook (and likely some not so vintage cookbooks) and you will see all kinds of abominations for custard, pudding, and mousse in savory versions.
Savory salmon mousse is still a thing today. As David Burke relates in Cooking with David Burke (Knopf (1995), page 40), “Savory mousses are used in place of sauces or as filling for puff pastry, may be added to soups, or served as a dip for raw vegetables.” He makes it sound not so bad.
If you have a savory mousse recipe, please share it below or send it my way, so I can give it a try, just to say I did. Let’s be glad the time of molding all the things is out of vogue (See: Above cookbook image). Bottom-line: Pudding, custard, and mousse can be savory or sweet.
Let’s Talk Texture.
Chocolate mousse is almost a synonym for French dessert. Unfortunately, one often finds poor imitations of the real thing in France and elsewhere. A good chocolate mousse is so rich, so chocolaty, that, as a friend says, one can only eat half of what would be a normal dessert portion. The styles range from gooey to firm.
When you think of pudding and mousse, you likely imagine something as smooth as Barry White’s bass-baritone voice. While that’s (mostly) accurate for both items (at least here in the US and Canada), puddings are heavier, thicker, and substantial enough to handle mix-ins like crushed cookies, graham cracker crumbs, candy pieces, and chocolate chips (to name a few). Mousse, however, folds under pressure. Well-made mousse should be lightweight and airy, a result of beating the heck out of eggs and/or heavy cream to achieve air bubbles.
Some folks maintain that French mousse uses eggs-only, and anything else is an American pudding in disguise. Others suggest that classic mousse uses both egg whites and yolks, but no heavy cream. I don’t have a strong opinion about that one, but I would be curious to hear what you guys think.
Pudding is often bolstered with cornstarch, gelatin, or tapioca and thickens during the cooking process.Caitlin M. O’Shaughnessy, What Is the Difference between Mousse and Pudding?, Chowhound, February 8, 2019.
When it comes to presentation though, both pudding and mousse are at the top of the list in terms of eye-appeal (though a crunchy, browned crème brûlée is amazing). Both mousse and pudding may be topped with tasty tidbits for that extra something-something. Keep it simple with homemade whipped cream (it takes 3 minutes of beating heavy cream in a chilled mixing bowl with a stand- or hand-mixer or by hand (though you won’t get it quite so high)). Or sprinkle on one of the other ideas featured below.
Served Hot, Cold, or Room Temperature
I would have thought that pudding, like revenge, is best served cold, right? Maybe room temperature if you have to, but otherwise cold. Always read the recipe notes and directions to see what the cook recommends. Then, don’t be afraid to try serving your pudding all the different ways. If a recipe reads, “Serve the pudding hot or cold,” set aside a little to try both ways. See what you prefer.
Custard is a different animal. Since it has a few different forms, it may be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. From pourable warm custard to cold, thick, spoonable custard, or room temperature pots de crème or crème brûlée, the serving temperature all depends on the recipe.
Why You Should Make Pudding from Scratch
Ah, convenience. It is the killer of good desserts and a ready excuse for turning to mediocre replacements. Why should you make your own pudding from scratch instead of tearing open a box of packaged pudding? Easy: It just plain tastes better.
On the other side of the Atlantic, puddings are a much-exalted food, so well regarded that the word stands for the entire family of desserts. An English “pudding” is the final course, which might turn out to be a cake, a tart, or an ice cream concoction. But if one is very lucky, it is the real thing, perhaps an irresistible sticky toffee pudding swathed in an elegant Armagnac sauce.
On this side of the Atlantic, pudding was kidnapped and held for ransom by industrial food manufacturers, who turned it into a packaged food. . . . .
The reentry of custards, mousses, and soufflés into the American pantheon of desserts is cause for celebration for three important reasons. The first is that they can, for the most part, be created out of ingredients that are already sitting in your cupboard. The second is that they are, of all desserts, the least expensive, since they rarely rely on exotic ingredients. And the third is that while they give the appearance of being technically tricky, most are incredibly easy . . . .
Homemade pudding does seem to be making its way back into American consciousness. When you skip the nostalgia factor, a homemade pudding has a nicer consistency, more variety, and amazing flavor (when you find the right recipe, at least). Let’s take a closer look at a boxed mix of pudding. The first few ingredients of a chocolate pudding mix resemble those of any good chocolate pudding recipe, and include sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch.
But then, the list of ingredients gets a little more commercial, albeit in relatively small quantities. There’s a slew of different dyes and artificial colors; disodium phosphate and tetrasodium pyrophosphate, which are used as a thickener; and some mono- and diglycerides, which are fats used to help prevent separation of oils. BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole, is also in there, as a preservative.Maxine Builder, What’s Actually in a Box of Instant Pudding?, MyRecipes, February 13, 2018.
Better yet, make your own pudding mix. Like I said above, there aren’t many differences in the essential ingredients. Combine together your measured dry ingredients and tuck it away in the pantry for busier days. Then, you’d need to only add in your liquid ingredients. Whether you make homemade pudding or a mix, you are combining wet with dry ingredients. While scratch-made pudding requires the extra step of cooking the pudding, unlike the “instant” pudding mixes available, it doesn’t get more complicated than that (and that is so not complicated).
With so many kinds of pudding recipes, you could spend your entire lifetime testing chocolate pudding alone. Add in all the other flavors you can possibly think of (or that you also turn to as a boxed pudding mix), and you’ll need multiple lifetimes to get it all done. Basically, you won’t ever get bored. But, it’s also incredibly easy to make a great pudding recipe that delights, which is really what you’re after, right? Riiiiight? I thought so.
Why You Should Make your Own Mousse from Scratch
It has been said that chocolate is the sexiest of all flavors. If so, this is the sexiest of all desserts.Maida Heatter on Chocolate Mousse Heatter, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts (1974), Page 339.
Mousse might give you that little “Ah!” gut kind of reaction. I think we are all kind of wired to believe mousse is so fancy our home kitchens can’t handle it. Or, even, that WE can’t handle. I mean, what’s almost guaranteed to appear on a nicer restaurant’s menu? Mousse in some way, shape, or form. Here’s the secret: Mousse is fast to fix, keeps well, and offers a plethora of presentation options. Of course it would make the list of many a restaurant’s dessert menu.
Now that you are sold on making your own puddings, custards, or mousses, take a look below to learn how to make them yours, and the best ways to store these lovelies to keep ’em fresh-tasting as long as possible.
Tips to Make Pudding and Mousse
The Importance of Ingredients
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 1,000 times, the fewer the ingredients, the more important good quality ingredients become. I’ve been beating it into our boys’ heads too. While I’d like to think I’ll be around forever, and can guide them when they are older, you just never know. And *I* know that it’s those little tidbits of info they will remember later, and that will hopefully result in far more dessert “wins” in the future. I’d like to save them from disappointing desserts. When you have lesser ingredients, the ingredients you use extra matter, so make them count. Use the step up from what you normally purchase. The same applies elsewhere in baking, and not just whipping up pudding and mousse.
Pudding and mousse rely on a handful of ingredients to add in flavor. That’s why everyone and their chef brother recommends high quality chocolate. Most recipes call for bittersweet or semisweet chocolate in fancier brands (i.e. not the basic Nestle or Hershey you might be used to). Never fear. Reach for the Ghirardelli or Guittard or whatever the “step up” chocolate may be available near you, and you’ll be fine. Better yet, try it with the stuff you usually use, then try the same recipe again with “better” chocolate. Do you taste a difference? You should. There is one.
Or, try a different sort of test. The kind of chocolate you should be buying is the kind you most enjoying eating out of hand. I had four different company’s chocolate chips on-hand, Ghirardelli, Guittard, Hershey, and Nestle. I decided we probably did have a favorite and that it probably DID matter in terms of achieving the best possible flavor in whatever we are making. I came up with the “chocolate chip test.” I handed over chocolate chips from each company. No one knew where they were from and I didn’t let them see the chocolate chip itself (Ghirardelli and Guittard have a nice shape). They chose the kind they like the most based on flavor. Ghirardelli won with my husband and the oldest, while the youngest and I liked Guittard the best. Funny thing, is that for those two brands, it was pretty close. No one cared for the Hershey’s or Nestle chips.
Chocolate chips last for ages, so I used the “losers” in a batch of cookies or muffins, something that contains plenty of ingredients (I would never use them in a recipe relying on a strong chocolate flavor). In our house, it doesn’t take long to go through chocolate chips. Now, I stick to Guittard or Ghirardelli and don’t bother buying anything else.
I should say that while many recipes out there use bittersweet chocolate, I usually hunt for recipes using semisweet or milk chocolate. I prefer the extra blip of sweetness. While I can, and have, subbed in the sweeter chocolates for bittersweet in pudding recipes, your results will be more predictable if you use a recipe geared towards a sweeter punch, or if you prefer less sweet (like my husband), then stick with the bittersweet or semisweet recipes. I prefer milk to dark chocolate for eating out of hand, so it’s no surprise I prefer milk to bittersweet chocolate in my desserts. Believe you me, I would love to love dark chocolate so I could snack on it and tell myself I’m doing that for the health benefits. But, alas. It’s just not for me. I turn to recipes that already include my preferences so know I’m going to get the flavors and level of sweetness I prefer.
I’d recommend great eggs too, if you are using a recipe with eggs. Farm eggs or their store-bought equivalent have brighter yolks, taste better, and will add a richness to your desserts (and everything else) you can’t get otherwise. I should note, however, not all farm eggs are created equal. Not long after we moved here to Pennsylvania, I was shocked when I cracked the last of the store eggs into a pan with one new farm egg to realize that the farm eggs I’d bought from an Amish farm looked THE SAME as the cheapo store eggs. They didn’t have the bright, buttery yolks! If a farmer isn’t providing good feed, it will be obvious. Shop around. Look for eggs from cage-free, vegetarian-fed chickens for ah-mazing eggs. It does make a huge difference in taste, I promise. If you can swing it, then do.
When our boys were itty bitty, and money was tight as it is when you are young, I used to buy good eggs for their breakfast eggs, and I used the lesser eggs in everything else. While my baked goods may not have reached their true potential, you gotta do what you’ve gotta do. After I found great farm eggs, the pricing wasn’t terribly different from the sucky store eggs, so I was able to switch (I found a woman who had $2/dozen). I felt better about that too, given the way I’ve seen how those kinds of chickens are treated. Pricing for cage-free, vegetarian-fed chicken eggs vary wildly too, and do taste different from farm to farm, so ask around, and ask everyone. Check your local butcher shop. Sometimes they carry local eggs. Do taste tests with eggs, just as you would with chocolate chips. Buy eggs from different brands, cook them your favorite way (fried eggs are the easiest comparison and in this case totally use your eyes here), and see what you prefer.
Not every mousse recipe will freeze well. The texture will likely change, and lose some of its lightness. As the Nigella website points out, “Raw eggs can sometimes weep on defrosting and can also on occasions carry a risk of food poisoning if not handled correctly though the temperature changes.” Still, Julia Child had mousse recipes with freezing instructions in her The French Chef cookbook. If your recipe includes freezing instructions, then there you go. Otherwise, it’s up to you to decipher that one. There is, however, another delicious option: Semifreddo.
If you want frozen mousse, take a look at semifreddos. The name means “half cold” or “half frozen,” and “all good.” I’m just kidding on the last one, but a semifreddo does have a texture reminiscent of mousse. In fact, some recipes begin using custard or creme Anglaise, and then add in whipped cream. The Spruce shares, “Semifreddo—Italian for “half-cold” or “half frozen”—got its name because of its unique texture. Even though it’s technically frozen, the Italian dessert stays soft and creamy. Unlike ice cream, semifreddo isn’t churned. Whereas ice cream is scooped, semifreddo is molded and sliced, usually in a metal loaf pan.” That’s easy, right?
As Martha Stewart says, “Fancy molds can be used for these desserts, so if you happen to have one in your collection, now is a great time to use it. And if you don’t, there’s no need to worry. Semifreddos are frequently frozen in plain metal loaf pans, and this makes for easy unmolding, garnishing, and slicing. A cool sauce such as chocolate, caramel, vanilla, or fruit can enhance a semifreddo, as can a garnish of fresh summer berries or other fruit. One final touch: chill the plates to be used to serve a semifreddo, especially in hot weather.” They are your best bet for an impressive make-ahead menu item.
Steps to Make Pudding and Mousse
Note: Lumpy, bumpy puddings, mousse, and custards can be fixed at the start. If using cocoa powder in your recipe, I’ve noticed that cheapo brands are more likely to be clumpy messes than cocoa powder using higher quality chocolate.
While I super urge you to ditch the junk cocoa powder for brands with better flavor, since a good chocolate mousse and pudding depend on the strength of the chocolate for flavor, another welcome perk is the lack of lumps. It isn’t necessary to use a sifter to fix your cocoa powder. Instead, you can easily whisk out those lumps in a separate dry bowl (not one where you’ve added liquids). Bonus: Achieve more accurate measurements if you whisk before you measure out your needed ingredients.
While the basic process for making a custard or crème anglaise generally stays the same, the ratio of sugar, milk or cream and egg yolk will vary across different recipes, as it is largely down to personal preference.
Using only double cream, as both Marcus Wareing and Chris Horridge seem to prefer, makes the consistency of the custard thicker, whereas a mix of whole milk and cream results in a thinner consistency more suited to pouring over a dessert. The amount of egg yolks used will also have an impact (the more you use, the richer the flavour will be), while the amount of sugar used should depend largely on how sweet you prefer your custard to be. Vanilla is a classic flavouring for custard, and recipes generally call for pods to be used. If you can’t get hold of pods, however, use vanilla essence instead.
Does the thought of trying to make pudding set freak you out? Don’t overthink it. Keep these tips in mind:
The first is to activate the cornstarch by making sure to bring the pudding mixture to a full, bubble-popping boil. The second is to let the pudding cook, stirring, until it thickens enough to mound on the spoon before you take it off the heat. This ensures that it will set properly.
All this boiling does increase the risk of curdling the egg yolks. The easiest fix is to simply strain the mixture after cooking; any coagulated bits of egg will be left in the sieve.
And using a ratio of 1 tablespoon cornstarch for every cup of milk or cream keeps things smooth and free of grit.
- Measure and whisk together dry ingredients.
- Measure and combine wet ingredients, dissolving cornstarch in cold liquid to prevent lumps (I have seen that mixing cornstarch and sugar together is supposed to work too).
- Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients.
- Cook on a stovetop.
- Add in final ingredients and give a quick whisk only until combined.
- Chill before serving or serve warm as the recipe dictates. DO NOT stir until chilled and set.
Don’t mess with your pudding as it cools. Once it’s boiled, add in whatever remaining ingredients there are in the recipe (extracts are always added after the heat is turned off to prevent evaporation), give it a brief whisk just until combined, and then pour your pudding into bowls, glasses, mugs, or whatever it is you use. Don’t touch it again until it’s had time to set.
- Measure and melt chocolate.
- Whisk eggs.
- Add flavoring(s).
- Beat in ingredients.
- Chill before serving as the recipe states.
Okay, so making mousse involves quite a bit of whisking. Some recipes fold in whipped cream or egg whites, so there is more beating involved there too. Your recipe will share the details.
Steps to Making Custard
You have to heat the custard anyway, whether via stovetop or oven, depending on the type and recipe. Checking for doneness is especially important when making a custard. It’s not a dessert you can heat and walk away from, only returning when the timer sounds. To retain moisture, and prevent cracking, a baked custard uses a water bath (or bain-marie), while a stirred custard heats up in a pot on your stove.
As Cook’s Illustrated shares, “Egg-based puddings and custards can curdle if cooked beyond 185 degrees. We take crème anglaise off the heat when the mixture registers 175 to 180, but when making the base for ice cream we push the temperature to 180 to 185 for maximum thickness. Baked custards, such as flan and crème brûlée, should jiggle (but not slosh) when gently shaken. This will occur between 170 to 175 degrees.” Keep your eye on the temperature.
And it’s true, it doesn’t pay to overheat custard. The average custard consumer has probably never thought about it, but custard exists on a continuum with scrambled eggs. Exactly the same reactions are going on, except that by stirring the eggs regularly you’re breaking up the gel that forms the final product for a custard, and you aren’t being so careful about the heat. But when you overcook a custard, suddenly the connection is very, very clear. A nasty eggy taste takes up residence and won’t go away. That’s likely the result of heat breaking down the protein components cysteine and methionine to release sulphur, says Crosby.
Could you – in a pinch – jump-start a custard in a microwave? That’s not a good idea either, it turns out. The great failing of microwaves is that they heat unevenly, even when they have a turntable. You’d risk not just a liquid custard but one with overdone eggy patches interspersed with completely raw puddles.
What you are looking for is something similar to Jell-O when your baked custard is set. You know, that little bit of jiggle in the center when you scooch the pan? That’s how a “done” custard behaves. Getting your custard to that point is the tricky part.
A baked custard, contained in a heat proof baking dish called a ramekin or casuela, must be baked in a water bath. The surrounding water insulates the baking dish allowing a slow, even bake for the custard inside. Without the water bath, the baking dish will transfer too much heat from the oven to the custard, causing it to curdle against the edges. A stirred custard requires low heat and constant agitation with a wood spoon or rubber spatula. This ensures the heat that is introduced to the bottom of the pot is distributed evenly through out the custard as it cooks, and prevents the custard from curdling on the pot’s hot bottom and sides.
Stirred custard will hit a point when it coats the back of a spoon. There’s a term for such an animal, according to CraftyBaking: “The term is called nappé, the French term to describe the consistency of a sauce, especially a custard sauce, is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and hold the shape of a line when a finger is drawn through it.”
The custard will have a different look to it and feel thickened. Use the time range listed on your recipe as a guide, but know you are shooting for that coated spoon effect, or nappé, to know when it’s done.
Cooking should never be continued after mixture coats a spoon in an effort to make it thicker, as prolonged cooking will cause “curdling.” Pour soft custard immediately into a chilled bowl to stop cooking quickly. Soft custard that has begun to separate or show signs of “curdling” as a result of overcooking should be removed immediately from heat, placed over cold water, and beaten with a rotary beater. This will restore its smoothness in most cases if the separation has not gone too far. The custard will thicken as it cools. If a still thicker custard is desired, the way to get it is to use additional eggs or yolks, or to start with milk just slightly thickened with a little flour.Meta Given, The Modern Family Cookbook, (1953), Page 257-258.
We’ll go into curdling and what to do to fix custard below, but that’s a great, quick explanation for you—and so you don’t rush ahead and try to thicken your custard by overheating it. If you aren’t familiar with Meta Given (as quoted above), it’s a great vintage cookbook, with numbered recipes for every day of the year, plus menus. You know I love reading cookbook menus! Now, let’s continue on with fixing mistakes…
How to Fix Pudding
Sometimes, you have done what you thought were all the right things, and a recipe for a pudding, custard, or mousse still doesn’t seem right. What do you do then? Depending on your problem, there may be a way to save your dessert.
If you are using Omega-3 eggs, I read that those eggs sometimes require extra cornstarch. In a recipe using 2 cups of whole milk and two Omega-3 eggs, the poster increased the cornstarch from 2 Tablespoons to 2 1/2 Tablespoons if that gives you a better idea of where to go.
Prevent Pudding Scorching and Burnination
A burned or scorched pudding is disappointing. If that’s been your go-to in the past, use a double boiler. Or, do like I do: Use a pot filled with water. Set a glass bowl above it, so that steam from boiling water will cook your pudding, but take the edge off. The water shouldn’t touch the glass bowl. The bowl gets hot, so you might want to grab a potholder. Use a balloon whisk to keep it moving as your recipe dictates, without overmixing.
If your recipe uses eggs, a well-written recipe will have you combine your egg yolks with a small part of your hot mixture, whisking to combine them, before you return the whole thing back to the pan to heat again. This step ensures a smooth, NON-curdled, lumpy, bumpy pudding. Don’t rely solely on the time provided in a recipe. Heat destroys the enzyme in eggs that make puddings runny if they aren’t heated enough. While you don’t want to boil the mixture for longer than needed, underboiling will result in a runny pudding too.
Fix Runny Pudding
If you’ve been using boxed pudding mixes, you may already know to use a little less milk to prevent a runny instant pudding. But when you switch to whipping up a batch of homemade pudding, what the heck do you do?
Is your pudding finished and more soupy than pudding-y? When your pudding won’t set, it isn’t necessarily a loss. You may be able to fix your thin mess of a pudding. Wanna know what probably went wrong? Most of the time, if it isn’t a bad recipe with off proportions, it’s because you overstirred.
Cornstarch must be cooked to 95°C (203°F) before thickening begins. At that point, it usually thickens fairly quickly and the sauce turns from opaque to transparent. When cornstarch thins after it’s thickened, it’s usually due to continued stirring. Once the thickening network forms, any agitation interferes with the setting process. The sauce thins when the starch network that sets and traps the liquid is broken. Liquid is released and thins the sauce.How Does Cornstarch Work?, Exploratorium.edu, October 6, 2003.
Don’t overmix after its boiled and thickened or you will undo all the work you just did. Reach for the whisk, and a double boiler (or, like I do, a pot with a glass bowl (not touching the water below it), when you start to make a pudding (never use an electric beater!).
To fix your runny American pudding, reheat the mixture. If you have cornstarch, you can try adding a little more to the mix. The texture may slightly change, but at least you will have a firmer pudding.
If you are getting all fancy and making a molded pudding, and not the typical American pudding, keep this Reddit advice in mind: “Normally, one envelope (2-1/4 tsp) will set 2 cups of liquid firm enough to un-mold. Sugar, acid, and alcohol (vanilla extract) can all affect this ratio.” Sometimes, a molded pudding will firm up overnight in the fridge.
Resist the urge to overstir or you’ll make your pudding runny. Drop the whisk after you’ve combined the last of the ingredients and poured it into your storage container, bowl, or serving glasses. If your pudding is too runny and you can’t fiddle with it anymore, use it as a sauce, an ice cream topping, or as a trifle layer. Soupiness may not be pretty, but it will still be tasty. You could try adding in half (or so) of a container of cool whip, pour it into a graham cracker pie crust, freeze it until solid, and see if you can’t turn your pudding into a pie.
An undercooked custard won’t set, while an overcooked custard may resemble something closer to scrambled eggs and not the dessert you were planning on.
When custards such as crème anglaise are heated, they turn thick and creamy as milk and egg proteins unfurl and bond with each other. However, if they are overheated, too many bonds form and the proteins clump.
To find a fix for lumps, we overcooked a simple custard to 205 degrees (the recommended temperature is 175 to 180 degrees), at which point it was full of large lumps. Rescuing the custard turned out to be a cinch with an immersion blender. A quick buzz effectively broke down the clumps, restoring a perfectly creamy texture (which didn’t break when we refrigerated the fixed custard).
If you notice lumps beginning to form in a custard, immediately pour it out of the hot pot into a bowl and pulse it with a handheld blender in five-second intervals until it is nearly smooth. This can take from 15 to 45 seconds, depending on how big the lumps are. Be careful not to overprocess or you can wind up with irreparably thin, watery custard. Don’t use a blender or food processor; they incorporate too much air and will leave the mixture frothy, not creamy. After blending, pour the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any remaining lumps and continue with your recipe.
What Can You Make Out of Messed Up Custard? Let’s be honest here. Some recipes just suck. You know you’ve found a suck recipe if you have experience and can’t get something to work. It’s not you. It’s totally the recipe. If you don’t want to keep futzing around with your custard to fix it, as shared above, you have options.
You don’t need to pitch your homemade custard. Use your runny custard as a pour-over sauce or as the base to custard ice cream.
Toppings and Mix-Ins for Custards, Mousses, and Puddings
Mix and match any of the items below to create your own unique pudding flavors and toppers. Layer ingredients in a clear glass or jar for pretty (tasty) presentation. What can you use to top a custard? When it comes to mousse, stick with a few toppers. Less is more here. As for custard, keep it simple.
Pudding Mix-Ins or Toppers
- Classic homemade whipped cream (1 Cup Heavy Cream beaten in chilled bowl with 2 Tablespoons Powdered Sugar for a couple minutes until it LOOKS like whipped cream and holds its shape. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract folded in at the end.)
- Mini M&M’s.
- Candy bars like Milky War, Snickers, Crunch, Almond Joy, or your favorite treat.
- Crumbled cookies like Nutter Butter, Chocolate Chip, Vanilla wafers, Newman-O’s, Hydrox, or Oreos.
- Graham cracker crumbs or animal-shaped graham crackers.
- Crushed pretzels.
- A swirl of marshmallow cream, hazelnut spread, almond butter, or cookie butter.
- Mini or regular chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, white, or mint chips.
- Use a different extract, like lemon, mint, raspberry, coconut, or orange extract.
- Candy bars like Milky War, Snickers, Crunch, Almond Joy, or your favorite treat.
- Stir in toasted sweetened coconut.
- Dulce de leche, caramel, butterscotch, or chocolate sauce.
- Mix in pumpkin puree, fruit jam, or chopped fresh fruit.
- Add a teaspoon or two of instant espresso powder.
- Toasted or raw hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts, pistachios, or other nut of choice.
- Drizzled with chocolate, raspberry, or other sauce of your choosing.
Keep it classy with traditional homemade whipped cream (recipe in the section directly above). Otherwise, pick and choose from the pudding mix-in and toppers section. This is one time you don’t want to go overboard. Simple is best when it comes to mousse. You don’t want to weigh it down.
Serving Pudding or Mousse
It’s blazing quick to make-I’ve prepared it after dinner and still served it before my guests left-which I do early. Once the chocolate is melted, the cooking is over; the mousse just sits until it sets up. You can spike chocolate mousse with rum, coffee, or other flavorings, but I like it simple-it’s the intensity of the chocolate that makes it special.
Nothing is fussy about pudding, custard, or mousse, not even in the serving of them. You can get as fancy or as informal as you’d like. Don’t stress over how you serve these desserts. No one will mind one bit.
Mousses can be served in parfait glasses, stem glasses, or cups, or, if they are suitable for unmolding like panna cottas, they can be placed on a plate and garnished with fruit or a sauce.The New York Times Dessert Cookbook, St. Martin’s Press, (2006), Page 429.
Pudding can be dolled up with any of the toppings or mix-ins listed above, or served as is. No matter how you choose to serve pudding, you can’t go wrong. Custard is even easier. Dust custard with a smidgen of cinnamon and you’re done. Some custards, like crème brûlée, create their own topping. A basic custard might have a simple garnish of a couple of berries or nothing at all. Custard is sometimes used as a sauce, and poured over bread puddings or sticky toffee pudding, and other delights. As is, well, custard is appealing in its simplicity.
How Do You Store Pudding, Custard, or Mousse?
They may have minor differences, but when it comes to storage, pudding, custard, and mousse need the same thing: cold. Now, if you are storing a bread pudding, you need to wait for it to cool or you’ll risk getting that sort of wet feeling on the top that happens when a too-warm item is covered and placed in the fridge. Yuck.
Most recipes will tell you how long to let the custard sit, usually in the neighborhood of ten minutes, or when filled cups can be comfortably handled before refrigeration. Reach for an airtight container and pop your custard in the fridge. If you have already poured custard into a ramekin, spread a little plastic wrap across the top, pressing lightly down to prevent a tough film from forming.
Mousse recipes vary. Some proclaim the mousse to become lackluster after a mere day. Others need to refrigerate for a full 24 hours before enjoyment, while some are fine four days later. Refer to your recipe to view when the author believes the mousse is best. If you have an event planned and you are making a mousse, you will want to test the recipe, and its actual saving qualities, before the big day.
Some people dislike the “skin” or covering that forms on pudding as it sits in the fridge. If that describes you, make sure you apply your reusable plastic wrap directly to the top of the pudding, touching the surface, to prevent it from forming. Since I don’t like the skin, I just give the pudding a quick stir. Problem: Solved (or at least unseen, which is what I’m going for).
If you DO like the “skin” on top, then store your pudding in any covered bowl. Scoop leftovers into serving size covered containers for easy to pack lunch desserts or quick portable snacks or leave in a big, old covered bowl to bring out for dessert the next day (or for your midnight snack).
Some puddings store well for up to four days, while others don’t last much beyond two days before they start to break down. Hopefully, your recipe of choice will provide a little guidance on that. If it doesn’t, and you have some sort of event, plan on making your pudding the night before, so it has plenty of time to set, and won’t separate. Just remember to leave pudding alone after you pour it into your serving ware and don’t stir it UNLESS your recipe instructs such a thing. Otherwise, you run the risk of breaking its structure.
Can You Freeze Pudding and Mousse?
Mousse may be served cold or frozen. If you freeze pudding, you might as well take a step back in time and make your own Pudding Pops. You can opt for a box mix, which is what our youngest son was making long ago in that photo, but it’s pretty simple to make a homemade pudding instead (and barely takes any longer to whip up).
Recipe for Homemade Pudding Pops
Jell-o Pudding Pops Recipe
- Popsicle Mold
- 1 3.9 oz. Box Chocolate Pudding (Cook n' Serve or Instant) You can use homemade pudding too, just
- 2 Cups Milk
- 1 Cup Cool Whip, Thawed
- Combine Milk and pudding mix for two minutes until completely combined.
- in Cool Whip until zero streaks remain.
- mixture into a pudding mold, dividing the mixture evening among six cups.
- for at least four hours or until the pudding mixture is set.
- from the mold per manufacturer's instructions (usually running warm water along the outside of the mold to loosen it from the sides for 10-15 seconds. Then, grab the stick and the container, and pull (DO NOT TWIST)).
Blancmange, Panna Cotta, Junket, and Bavarian Cream. Oh My!
Plenty of other desserts share similarities with pudding, custard, and mousse. Creamy, smooth, or comforting though they may be, items like panna cotta, blanc mange, junket, and Bavarian cream aren’t the same and, again, aren’t interchangeable terms, though some do have similarities or are related.
And, once again, plenty of websites and books out there muddle the terms, making it ever the more difficult to figure out what is what. This is what is what. Now you’ll know the difference between panna cotta and Bavarian cream and will never confuse the two again. Embarrassment, averted.
Also known in France as bavarois, this custard-based dessert is lightened with whipped cream and stabilized with gelatin; for a creamier texture, reduce the amount of gelatin by half. Bavarians are generally set in a mold and well chilled, then turned out for serving.James McNair, James McNair’s Custards, Mousses, and Puddings, Chronicle Books, (1992), Page 39.
When I was in middle and high school, Bavarian cream made a frequent menu appearance. Chocolate or “pink,” it was something I really wanted to like just because of its nice presentation, but I didn’t care for it, and traded it off or gave it away. Actual Bavarian cream is world’s apart from whatever the heck was in those little plastic cups in the school cafeteria. I’m guessing it was over-gelatinized. Bavarian cream, bavarois (pronounced bä-vär-ˈwä), or bavaroise is the artist formerly known as frommage bavarois or cheese bavarois in English.
Bavarian cream is a kind of custard. It begins as a basic crème Anglaise (milk, egg yolks, sugar), is cooked, and then takes a turn into its own category, thanks to a bit of gelatin for setting purposes. It’s a custard with gelatin that’s lightened up with cream beaten into soft peaks, and then chilled (or frozen—though there are mixed thoughts on that). It may be served chilled, though I’ve seen mention of serving it frozen.
Remember how mousse can be savory or sweet? Bavarian cream is always a dessert. Traditionally, or as they would teach in a chef school, Bavarian Cream is served with a sauce and a cookie, like lady fingers, which aren’t so much a cookie as a cake (bonus: the sauce helps to hid any mess-ups from an imperfect unmolding). Any kind of dessert that makes it simple to hide your mistakes AND lets you add on another dessert is totally my kind of dessert.
It can be swapped for pastry cream in fillings (think: Donuts), though it won’t make for perfect presentation because of the gelatin. Most donuts use pastry cream (crème pâtissière), yet call it Bavarian cream. That’s a common mistake related to Bavarian cream in general. Remember, Bavarian cream is different from pastry cream because it uses gelatin.
Blancmange is a popular French dessert that’s similar to a panna cotta, except with a firmer consistency. It’s a cross between a gelatin and a custard.Chef Eddy Van Damme, Blancmange, Imperial Sugar, Accessed July 13, 2021.
Light and creamy blanc mange, or blancmange, is (as the name suggests) white. I guess I DO remember something from French class: “blanc” means “white” and “manger” means “to eat.” Today’s traditional dessert ingredients include cream or milk, sugar, almond extract, and gelatin (or agar-agar, a vegetarian gelatin substitute). A blanc mange in Medieval times would have included chicken too. Anyway, for today’s dessert, some folks do opt to use corn flour in addition to, or in place of, the gelatin. It does affect the texture so I’ve read a few differing opinions on what makes the best blanc mange (even among people I’d consider experts). The end result should be creamy and light.
Flavorings and colorings are sometimes added. If you were presented with a strawberry- or raspberry-flavored blanc mange, it wouldn’t be wrong, though it may feel odd, to ask for the “pink blanc mange.” Words are weird. This is a molded dessert, so it spends time chilling in the fridge before being turned out onto a plate. Of course, you don’t need a fancy mold to make the dessert. You can serve it in a glass or ramekin alongside a buttery cookie, like a shortbread, as most recipes suggest.
Junket used to fascinate me growing up in the 1960s. Here was this dessert with the flavor of a pudding and the quivering, bouncy texture of gelatin all rolled into one. The milky pastel colors were kind of mod, too, a bonus at a time when looks were everything.Bill Daley and Tribune Newspapers, Fond Memories of Junket, the Rennet Custard, Chicago Tribune, February 5, 2014.
I know all about a “press junket” from my decade+ as a freelance writer, but a “junket” as a dessert? I had no idea but wondered if it had equally good implications. After a bit of research I learned quite a bit. Merriam-Webster has an almost helpful bit about junket: “Since at least the 15th century, the word has named various comestibles, ranging from curds and cream to sweet confections.” Comestibles? I’m not ashamed to admit I Googled that one. It means an item of food. I like the way this woman said it:
What is it?Junket, the Mystery Dessert, Won’t Read Directions, July 20, 2010.
Well, the box says rennet custard. So like a pudding?
Kinda sorta. But not thick and gooey like pudding. And not especially rich. More like sweet milk jello.“
Otherwise termed “curds and whey,” the basic ingredients of junket are: Milk, sugar, rennet, and flavoring (like nutmeg or vanilla extract or both, among others). Wait, rennet? An old article in Lancaster Online included commentary from Steve Lutzke (formerly?) of Chris Hansen’s laboratory in Milwaukee, Wisc. Lutzke shared, “Rennet allows you to change a liquid milk to a solid cheese, a custard or a pudding. You can make cheddar cheese with a lot of rennet because it causes milk to thicken. You can make a pudding with a little bit of rennet. When the enzyme reacts with the milk, the proteins are more readily available.”
Contrary to multiple websites and more than a few vintage cookbooks who refer to junket as a “rennet custard,” a junket isn’t a custard. Junket doesn’t contain any eggs, and eggs, as we have all learned above, are the basis of a true custard. I guess maybe we can say it’s custard-like. Junket, like the rest of the items in this “chapter” are in a class of their own. Now, let’s get back to rennet.
Originally, the only way to obtain rennet was from killing calves. Lutzke continued, “The source of the rennet was normally calves that had not yet been weaned, and thus it was available only when a calf was slaughtered. While there were various ways of extracting and preserving the rennet needed for cheesemaking, there was no standardization of the strength of the solution and the results were often unsanitary. Hansen used his experience in chemistry and pharmacology to produce “an extract of high keeping quality, uniform strength, and free from the contaminating impurities characteristic of the – often foul – liquid of uncertain coagulating power produced by soaking the stomachs in whey in the dairy.”” Yay, science! People could make the things they needed and enjoyed with consistent (and safe) results.
“In 1886 Hansen’s Household Rennet Tablets made their appearance, accompanied by a simple recipe to make junket, an English dessert known also by other names such as curds and whey, slip, or rennet custard. The basic recipe has not changed materially since then.
As the American public became familiar with the tablets and the delicious dessert made with them, people began to refer to them as “Junket Tablets” (much less of a mouthful than “Hansen’s Household Rennet Tablets for Junket”), and by 1895 the company had renamed them “Chr. Hansen’s Junket Tablets.”
Yes, rennet tablets are still available today. Rennet tablets are roughly the size of a dime and are still available from Junket Desserts. Some stores carry the tablets in the gelatin section. Otherwise, you can find them at the Junket Desserts website or get Rennant Tablets on Amazon or eBay. If you KNOW you love rennet tablets, then get them from Junket Desserts where they offer up bulk buys to save money. Otherwise, double-check that the other merchants are listing expiration dates so you don’t end up with a dud.
Panna cotta, crema cotta or “cooked cream,” this Italian dessert uses gelatin and a pretty mold. It should never be rubbery (think: Jell-o), but smooth and creamy in texture. It may be served plain or with a sauce, like hot fudge, caramel, or one made from fruit.
Unlike puddings, custards, and mousses, panna cotta is always served cold. As Joe Pastry says, “Panna cotta, being thickened with colorless, flavorless gelatin, not only has a different look and feel to it, it has a purity of flavor that “real” custards simply can’t match.”
Only mild flavorings are included in traditional panna cotta (think: Vanilla bean). But then again, even food writer and author Anna de Conte mentioned the addition of a little rum in her book Gastronomy of Italy (along with peach eau-de-vie or coffee), so that’s a “green light” if I ever saw one. Side note: Nutella is also produced in Piedmont, so loads of gold stars to that area for being awesome.
Something Good Here
Pudding and mousse are some of my favorite things to make. They are the kind of desserts I turn to when I realize we finished off the cake, we need a dessert (really, because *I* need a dessert), and there isn’t a ton of time. Pudding, custard, and mousse don’t have to be fussy or time consuming, though you will find recipes that do offer up greater complexity. But, and here is the beauty of these lovelies: They don’t have to be complicated. When time is short, less is a clear winner here.
If you need a confidence booster in the kitchen, pudding is it! I realize I say that quite a bit, but some things are just that easy. Kids in your life can jump in and help, no problem. With a little guided practice the first few times, our sons were perfectly capable of measuring and mixing up homemade pudding in their elementary school years. Our oldest son dug up recipes on his own, frequently exclaiming that he couldn’t believe how easy it was to make. I consider that response a solid vote for “make pudding often.”
Custard, Pudding, and Mousse Recipes and Content
- Pudding Cookbooks
- The History of Custard, Pudding, and Mousse
- Boston Cream Pie: A History Plus 3 Recipes