Boiled custard, the gossamer thread to Nanny’s Christmas Eve


For a Christmas Eve treat, Michelle’s paternal grandmother always made a Southern tradition, boiled custard. After that, things get a bit hazy.

Boiled custard itself can be confusing, especially to someone like Steve who has sketchy (and Yankee) Christmas traditions. While both eggnog and boiled custard arise from the mists of Anglo-Saxon odd drink traditions (along with wassail, posset and caudle), the former is often made with raw eggs, while the “boiled” custard popular in the Southern U.S. cooks eggs along with milk and sugar. In an odd (to Steve, at least) tether to the worst clichés of English cuisine, boiled custard also omits any spice such as nutmeg, which is another way to tell it apart from eggnog—especially if you’re buying the processed store version. Bland, confusing or not, in Michelle’s family if it’s Christmas somebody is supposed to be drinking boiled custard.

Ornaments (1)

Most of the stories Steve has heard from Michelle about her “Nanny” who passed away back in the Seventies involve food, centering on a sweet woman dishing up mounds of fried chicken, biscuits, vegetables and desserts to family and neighbors. Nanny, according to Michelle, was always cooking—which is perhaps why there are so few family pictures of her. She seems to be always in the background, serving squads of Turners who now can’t seem to agree on what she actually laid out at the annual family gathering on Christmas Eve. (There is supposedly a Hopkinsville, Kentucky newspaper article detailing the deliciousness of Nanny’s holiday spreads, but we await confirmation on its particulars.) Various family members say Nanny served country ham, sweet potato pudding, pimento cheese, ambrosia and scalloped oysters. Others recall nothing but piles of sweets including potato/peanut butter candies, pineapple cake, coconut cake, yellow cake with chocolate icing, raisin pie and bourbon balls. Perhaps the sheer number of family members (Michelle had three uncles, three aunts and nearly a score of first cousins) is a reason for the disparate memories, as late-comers may have missed out on certain delicacies while early birds remained mum. There is no disagreement on the boiled custard, at least.

Christmas ornaments

Nanny’s boiled custard supposedly used flour as a thickener, and the first recipe Michelle tried this year (from Atkins Dairy in Hopkinsville) similarly used cornstarch. The result was a giant pitcher of thick, sugary goo that was too sweet even for Michelle, and it’s almost redundant to say Steve found it revolting. Abandoning any attempt to emulate Nanny, Michelle then turned to Camille Glenn, who advocated separating the eggs and incorporating the beaten whites after the custard cooled. This custard was lighter and much less sweet—quite acceptable, especially after Steve added a little shot of bourbon, raising a toast to Nanny and her descendants.

Boiled Custard

Rest assured that the Hopkinsville dairy horror did not go to waste, as Gourmandistan has many ideas about what to do with crème Anglaise. Steve thought the thick mess would be perfect with tart, fresh berries, but Christmas is no time for that. So we pulled out our ice cream freezer and dumped the custard inside, Michelle making a dark chocolate sauce while it cranked. A while later we had a quite scrumptious frozen custard dessert. While it may not become a new Turner holiday tradition, at least it’s more solid than most memories of Nanny’s Christmas Eve food.


(adapted from Camille Glenn’s The Fine Art of Delectable Desserts)

  • 4 c. whole milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/2 TB vanilla extract
  • 3 egg whites

Scald milk, making sure not to let it boil.

Beat egg yolks, sugar and salt until light and creamy.  Add the warmed milk, a little at a time and stir to combine well.

Cook the custard in a double boiler or a heavy pot over low to medium-low heat.  Stir constantly until custard is slightly thickened and will coat the back of a wooden spoon.

Remove from heat and pour into a cool bowl or plastic container.  Add vanilla.  Refrigerate immediately.  Occasionally stir gently while it cools to prevent a scum from forming.

When custard is cold, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry.  Fold into custard.

Custard will keep for several days, refrigerated in a closed container.

Serve in a small glass, plain or with a bit of bourbon, rum or brandy.

Custard Ice Cream

And if all else fails, make ice cream.
Merry Christmas!


  1. It is true: there are many delicious things to be done with creme Anglaise. I like your solution a lot. I also, like Steve, find many previously-unpalatable things are much improved by the addition of booze.

  2. Beth

    Lovely! I don’t remember Nanny’s boiled custard, but it’s not Christmas in this Turner descendant’s household without it! Thanks for the warmth of her memory!
    Merry Christmas from Turner grandchild 20 of 21

  3. Hooray for saving the Hopkinsville Dairy Horror! Bravo for the ingenious idea to turn it into frozen custard. Very inspired.

    I’ve never encountered boiled custard even though my father’s side of the family is scattered across Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. I wonder if its because a lot of Asians are lactose-intolerant, but weirdly no one in our family is allergic to dairy. We are a bunch of genetic freaks!

    But this looks and sounds interesting to me. Especially with the addition of Steve’s Bourbon 🙂

  4. This sounds rich and wonderful, just perfect for a Christmas drink. I, too, would have used the “reject” in my ice cream machine. I bet it was delicious, especially when served with Michelle’s chocolate sauce.
    This time of year, Mom would make a custard for use in her Zuppa Inglese. Made with alcohol drenched lady fingers, that was one potent dessert! I imagine Steve’s custard could take on the same properties as the night progresses.
    Wishing you both a very Happy Holiday Season and Wonderful 2013.

  5. “Wassail, posset and caudle..” “…the Hopkinsville Dairy horror…” The first three sound like solicitors out of Dickens; the second, like a bad 1950s b & w flic. The boiled custard sound really unusual–chill, then fold with egg whites?–and really interesting as a result. I think Steve’s idea about the berries sounded great, but Bourbon Boiled Custard Ice Cream would take the prize for me. Merry Christmas! Ken

    • I’m not sure if he came up with those before or after the bourbon shot. But definitely you and Steve could play a dueling vocabularies game. Hope the holidays are grand in Boston.

  6. Michelle, life is just too strange…. My grandad’s family are all from Christian County!! So, I’ve also found Camille Glenn’s cookbook to be a saving grace on more than one occasion:-). What a small world…

    • No kidding?! It IS a small world. My dad grew up in Pembroke. Where did your family live? (And, oh, yes, I love Camille Glenn’s books. They are both old-fashioned and modern.) Hope you have a wonderful Christmas in Côte d’Ivoire!

      • Believe it or not, my family have all lived in Hopkins since the Revolutionary War. The clan of Atkinsons I’m descended from last lived at Turkey Hill (outside town) & my Grandad knew exactly where Camille Glenn grew up, which is one of many reasons I love her recipes. Her buttermilk pancakes and Cointreau cake are both to die for! Anyway, I wish you both a very Merry Christmas filled with family, love and laughter!

          • Can’t wait to hear what you learn because my grandad (who is now deceased) loved home so much that he even made us all trivets from wood he collected on a visit to Turkey Hill & I’ve not yet made it there myself; but, Christian County is definitely on my bucket list!

  7. My grandmother’s unfortunate tradition was a dry, workaday date-nut loaf that she would make about a week in advance of the holiday. Not nearly as interesting as the boiled custard. Happy sipping and happy holidays to you!

    • Maybe next year we could start a meme of “unfortunate” family food traditions. However we may soft-pedal them here, believe me, we’ve got a lot of them! Hope you have a lovely holiday, Sacha.

  8. Oh no.. my chooks have not laid an egg in weeks (since i left actually.. sigh) no custard for me.. soon though, I love hot runny custard and i have to say i love the ice cream version too.. did you pour it over the plum pud!! ? Maybe not, i am sure Plum Duff is not very southern.. have a lovely weekend.. c

      • It is perfect with custard.. but then I love custard and pour it over just about everything given half a chance.. so as soon as my naughty chooks start to lay I am coming back for this recipe.. c

  9. rrwriter

    Favorite holiday food – you have nailed it — and also the food my mother (and, she said, her mother) made when feeding sick children. It made sickness so worthwhile. I could live on boiled custard. Glad it’s part of the customs of Gourmandistan as well. Happy 2013 (and much custard to you!)

  10. Pingback: Nellie Woodens Dump Cake | familyrecipebooks

  11. Somehow I missed this recipe! I can’t wait to try it. And i love the ornament photos. My grandparents have those exact ones. They remind me of home. I miss the simple Christmases of my childhood.

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