Dessert custards all share something in common: a silky texture and impossibly rich flavor. But what marks the difference between pot de crème and crème caramel, or pastry cream and pudding? The difference lies in four factors: the ratio of ingredients, the manner in which the custard is thickened, the method of cooking, and any additional components.
THE BALANCE OF EGGS, SUGAR, AND DAIRY
In custards, the proportion of eggs to sugar to dairy is critical, since texture and flavor hang in delicate balance. Eggs lend sturdiness, and the most opulent custard desserts contain only egg yolks. Sugar also affects texture: The more sugar in a custard, the less firm it will tend to be, and the longer it will take to set. And the amount of fat in your dairy, whether cream or milk, will affect the dessert’s level of richness.
WHICH THICKENING AGENT?
Custard is set in one of three different ways: with eggs, starch, or gelatin. Crème brûlée, pots de crème, and flan are thickened with egg; in contrast, pastry cream and American-style cheesecake often employ cornstarch or flour. Gelatin is used to add a gel-like consistency to Bavarian cream and most mousse recipes.
COOKING AND SERVING METHOD
All custards are set using low, gentle heat. However, they fall into one of two categories: stirred (cooked on the stovetop) or baked (set in a water bath in the oven). Crème anglaise, pastry cream, mousse, and pudding are stirred; flan, crème brûlée, and pots de crème are baked. Custards can also be served at a wide range of temperatures: Serve crème anglaise warm, and it’s a sauce; freeze it and it becomes ice cream.
More elaborate custard desserts involve additional components, such as toppings or coatings. Crème brûlée contains a layer of hard caramel on top, achieved by melting sugar with a blowtorch; crème caramel is coated in a layer of soft caramel before being turned out.
DESSERT CUSTARDS: A CHEAT SHEET
Crème anglaise is a stirred custard made with milk, sugar, and eggs (or sometimes gelatin).
Recipe from Road to Pastry
American-style pudding is often made with cream and milk, sugar, gelatin, and a starch thickener such as cornstarch. It sometimes contains no eggs.
Recipe for Easy Vanilla Pudding from CHOW
Pastry cream is a stirred custard made with milk, sugar, and egg yolks, and a large amount of thickener such as flour or cornstarch.
Recipe and photo for Strawberry Tart with Citrus Pastry Cream from CHOW
A pot de crème is a loosely set baked custard composed of cream, sugar, and egg yolks.
Recipe and photo for Chocolate Pots de Crème from CHOW
Crème brûlée is a baked custard made with sugar and thickened with egg yolks and cream. It’s topped with sugar that’s torched or broiled to form a hard caramel crust.
Recipe and photo for Eggnog Crème Brûlée from CHOW
Crème caramel (also known as flan) is a custard of sugar, milk, cream, and egg yolks, baked in a caramel-sauce-lined ramekin until soft and wiggly.
Recipe and photo from Bon Appétit
Cheesecake is a baked custard made with sugar, eggs, and cream cheese, and often made firmer with the addition of flour.
Recipe and photo for Nutella Chocolate Cheesecake from CHOW
A mousse is a stirred custard made with sugar, eggs, and gelatin; it’s lightened with the addition of egg whites and whipped cream.
Recipe and photo for Basic Chocolate Mousse from CHOW; header image of Michael Recchiuti's Burnt Caramel Custard (Pots de Crème) from CHOW