Creamy, cool, smooth, and, eggy, custard is often (but not always) sweet, and sadly ephemeral as its undeniable deliciousness will quickly vanish from your plate.
There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe the ethereal, yet luscious sensory experience that is custard. Whether it be a deep fried donuts piped to almost bursting with Bavarian cream or strawberry waffles drizzled in crème anglais, custard has the magical ability to elicit feelings of utter joy and (dare I say it?) even rapture, especially in the uninitiated.
There’s a special kind of magic that happens when egg yolks come together with sugar and milk. Its almost like they were meant to be, a romantic triangle resulting in an unusually spectacular coalescence. One would be forgiven in thinking it a recipe gifted by the gods, ambrosia enjoyed by the immortal and mortal alike.
If there’s one type of custard we’re most familiar with in New Orleans, it would have to be crème brûlée. A simple, yet elegant dessert born in France sometime in the late 1600s, crème brûlée became a shining symbol of indulgence in the 1980s and to many, has never lost its luster. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with classic vanilla, say like Justin Devillier’s version at his French Quarter restaurant Justine, it’s always a treat when chefs offer their own rifts. Take for example the tropical coconut milk and mango crème brûlée at Fritai, a Haitian restaurant in Tremé. For a mere $8, your tongue is transported to a tropical island in the clouds. It should come with a warning as the post-brûlée blues can be rough. It might be best to order two.
Speaking of islands, have you ever had a floating one? The “île flottante” or floating island is a fluff of steamed meringue served atop an silky pool of crème anglais, a custard sauce so dreamy, you’ll want to bring the plate to your lips and drink it! Travel to the island requires a jaunt to Bayou St. John where you’ll sit under the trees in the Parisian-style, outdoor dining room at Café Degas and after (or before) treating yourself to garlicky escargot or imported cheeses with fresh berries, dip your spoon into a marshmallowy meringue drifting in a pool of cool, creamy custard sauce. Don’t worry, the gratuitous licking of spoons and fingers is required for proper consumption.
We’re going into Cajun country with this next custard creation, the magical, mystical tarte à la bouillie. This is a genuine Louisiana-born dessert featuring a sugar cookie-like crust and a thick, silky vanilla custard. Granted, you can find several versions of this unassuming, yet utterly fulfilling custard tart, but our money is on one found in Algiers Point. Check the Appetite Repair Shop Menu group for regular updates on Chef Pete Vasquez’s unique menus as the tarte à la bouillie makes a regular appearance. We promise it’s worth the trip. Cool, creamy and oh-so smooth, Vasquez’s double-tall version is sure to make you swoon, especially after a to-go dinner of grilled sourdough with burrata and summer tomatoes, or Zapp’s-crusted redfish with Parmesan cream rice.
We’ve dipped our toes into pastry, we may as well go ahead and dive all the way in with a quick trip to Angelo Brocato – the iconic, 100+ year-old Italian ice cream parlor in Mid-City. By all mean, enjoy an espresso with biscotti, or a creamy-cool scoop of their Sicilian pistachio nut gelato, but the custard-based amusements don’t end there. How about a classic Napoleon or mille-feuille with thick pastry cream oozing between layers of buttery puff pastry with every bite, or the lovely “Zeppole di San Giuseppe,” a St. Joseph’s Day treat made with fried dough filled with – you guessed it – cool, creamy custard.
Since the door has opened into the wonderful, custardy world of pastry cream, the possibilities are almost endless. Pick a local patisserie, whether it be Gracious Bakery, La Boulangerie, La Petite Sophie (the list goes on) and you’re bound to find an apt egg-sample. Just take Ayu Bakehouse, a self-described modern bakery on Frenchmen Street. Opened in the Marigny just over a year ago, Ayu has been drawing in neighbors and visitors with their chocolate babka knots and seeded sourdough. Over the summer, they dropped a precious “pavlita” – a mini pavlova a.k.a. meringue topped with mascarpone pastry cream and fresh berries.
Finally, in New Orleans one of our most celebrated ways to enjoy custard is during Mardi Gras when its piped generously into a king cake. While it may be difficult, it’s upholding tradition to bide your time until it’s “in season,” from king’s day to Mardi Gras. Then, and only then, can you walk into almost any grocery store and score a glorious king cake, particularly one bursting at the seams with Bavarian cream, a custard-based filling made with a crème anglais base thickened with gelatin and made airy with whipped cream. Just be sure to mark your calendar for January 6th!
*Article originally published in the October 2023 issue of Where Y’at Magazine