On a night not fit for man nor beast – Salted Butterscotch Custard

Salted Butterscotch Custard-27

As I write this (Thursday) the Big Bad Wolf howls about our house, a slavering gale sniffing out chinks, probing for weaknesses.  The temperature is expected to plunge to 5 or 6 above zero by morning, with Boston adrift in over a foot of snow before the blizzard subsides Friday evening.  In our current larder we have bread, sweet potatoes and bitter greens that Jody made tonight, chewy papardelle noodles with smoked goose and tomato sauce–the last hurrah of our Christmas birds–and a few precious survivors of this week’s post, Salted Butterscotch Custards.  We couldn’t be snugger.

Last week’s Sadie’s Gingersnaps notwithstanding, we haven’t devoted a lot of time to desserts on The Garum Factory.  It’s hard to put a lot of energy into the main event and do dessert, especially when a choice bit of runny cheese and a few dates or sliced pears makes a nice conclusion.  Also, we don’t believe in doing dessert by halves.  If it doesn’t taste and feel like a treat why bother?

Butterscotch is a tricky thing.  I labor under the handicap of a humble culinary birthright, where the benchmark against which all future butterscotch flavors would be measured came in a small cardboard box (like that other blue and gold marker from childhood, mac and cheese).  On the other hand, Jody, as she acidly informed me, grew up eating the real thing.  It can take a bit of humility to set aside one’s childhood tastes, especially if you’re not even aware they are childhood tastes unless a helpful partner points it out.  My observations that Jody’s initial efforts didn’t taste sufficiently butterscotch-y were not received with the warmth that one anticipates in cooperative efforts.  Butterscotch pudding, I follied on, ought to evoke an echo butterscotch hard candy.  To which Jody replied that of course I would think that way, since most butterscotch candies are little bombs of artificial flavoring.  Ouch!

During my enforced respite in the culinary reeducation camp  Jody conjured up a dessert that pleased both of us, a custard, not a pudding.  An intense butterscotch flavor rests atop a foundation of cream and eggs, lingers, then finishes with an exquisitely salty bite.  What?!  Too soon?  We have our resolutions, you have yours, and with 12 inches of snow coming down this is no time for kale smoothies.  Reform and resolutions can wait while the wind huffs and puffs a welcome to 2014.  Me, I’m going to gather my custards while I may, for tomorrow we shovel.  Enjoy.    Ken

Salted Butterscotch Custard-1



  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¾ cup raw turbinado sugar
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups  heavy cream
  • 7 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt


  1. Preheat the oven to 300ºF.
  2. In a small saucepan, heat the milk with the bay leaf over medium heat.  Simmer 1 minute and then allow to steep off the heat while you caramelize the sugar.  Alternatively, put the bay leaf in the measuring cup with the milk.  Microwave 1 minute.  Let it steep while you caramelize the sugar.
  3. In a large saucepan, cook the turbinado sugar over medium-low heat until it melts and deepens in color, about 4 minutes.  Don’t let it smoke.  Add the butter and stir until smooth.  Add the brown sugar and cook until smooth, stirring all the while.  It will resemble melted chocolate.  Remove from the heat.  CAREFULLY stir in heavy cream, ¼-cup at a time.  If the cream is added too quickly the mixture will bubble up and boil, threatening to overflow.  Whisk in the milk.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks.  Temper the yolks by adding  several  ladles of the warm cream mixture to the beaten egg yolks.  Then whisk the egg yolk mixture into the cream mixture.  Add the vanilla and ¾ teaspoon of salt.  Strain into a large measuring cup or pitcher.
  5. Pour into 8 custard cups.
  6. Set the cups in a baking dish and then on the oven rack.  Add warm water to come halfway up the cups.  Bake 50-60 minutes or until only a little wiggle remains in the center of each custard.  Remove the pan from the oven and allow the custards to cool for 15 minutes.  Set the custards on a rack to cool completely.  Sprinkle with the remaining sea salt.

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Jody Notes:

This started out as Butterscotch Pudding, but after I wrestled the recipe to the ground over the course of 24 hours it morphed into Butterscotch Custard.  It sounded so simple, when Ken said, “Let’s make butterscotch pudding for the Garum Factory.”  Although I’d never made it before, I thought, how hard can it be?  Well, to get that flavor and texture you all remember from the Jello Pudding box, isn’t that easy.  A pudding is a custardy dessert stirred in a pot over a flame.  It has milk, cream, butter, eggs, egg yolks, light or dark brown sugar, vanilla, salt and a starch, like flour or cornstarch, in varying amounts.  I tried it 5 different ways and hated each one more than the last.  I won’t bore you with the details of the process.  I stormed out of the kitchen, blaming Ken for wasting 24 hours of my life on butterscotch pudding, and went to the gym. Upon reflection and calm, I said to myself, “Hate is a very strong word for a childhood dessert.  You can do this.  Do what you know and love–custard.”  So I switched it up, took out the cornstarch, changed the proportions of the ingredients, snuck in a bay leaf, and, after  3 tries, came up with this perfect recipe.  My friends Eric and Jon–both restaurant pros–referred to it as “custard crack”–high marks from my peeps.  

59 thoughts

  1. Very interesting. I’ve never thought about what butterscotch really is. I had a similar dilemma with eggnog when I decided to make eggnog ice cream. But this looks absolutely fabulous. I’m just really glad that my mother never bought such things as jello puddings. ugh. it was always crème caramel for us when we were sick. which actually sounds funny. this would be fabulous with chocolate as well, wouldn’t it/ lovely and delicious. as always.

  2. These photo’s are just to die for!! I feel like I could dive right in to that caramel pool of delicious! (I hate finding posts like this so late at night, I end up arguing with myself whether to hop up and make it right away or savor it!)

    • Thank you, TAF. I’d stay in bed awhile, then get up and have a go. It should be finished just about the time the plowing is done. Then you can go out to dinner, come home and eat one of these while watching those three episodes of HOMELAND you need to finish the season. Thanks for commenting. Ken

  3. While after re-creating childhood Christmas excess for a returning prodigal, her new husband and baby, I will not be trying this soon, it does look particularly yummy. I was unfortunate to have a mother who did not like custard, so I have no happy creme caramel memories, had to discover delicious creme brûlée and its cousins on my own. But for the record, I never liked butterscotch pudding from the box, any more than I liked Mother’s ‘scientific’, supposedly better-for-you margarine after I discovered real butter at my aunt’s. Thanks for soldiering on, Jody. There will, I fear, be plenty of winter left to try your custard after my serum cholesterol returns to more normal levels.

    • Ha! But, oh, bitter words to hear the dessert of my childhood lumped together with margarine, which is truly awful. My father-in-law was a big fan of “oleo,” as he called it, on his breakfast toast. For the life of me I could never understand why.


  4. It’s windy and rainy here in my part of the UK and already dark outside, late afternoon. Your caramel custards warmed the cockles of my heart. I don’t have to shovel but I may still gather a few anyway.

  5. Stunning. A perfect way to brave the storm. I love love love the salt. It makes the whole thing. A goose parpadelle sounds nice. I had some last night in Brooklyn too at a bar. Yum.

    • One night in a Brooklyn bar, during a blizzard… we could do something with that. :-) I too am crazy about the marriage of salty and sweet, but I half wish it had never escaped Europe 20 years ago, and was still an exotic experience abroad. Too late to close the barn door now, I suppose. It’s moved from brilliant confectioner’s insight to dependable tool, and I’m hoping it doesn’t continue to devolve into cliche. Thanks for commenting. Ken

  6. When I read the post title my first thought was “damn, that sounds like a lot of work, even if it looks absolutely delicious”. But reading the recipe, it doesn’t sound a lot of work at all. Bookmarked :-)

    • It’s not a lot of work, Kiki, just a lot of easy steps in a sequence that passes fairly quickly. Do it with a friend–you don’t want to have to eat all of those custards yourself, do you? :-) Ken

  7. Have never heard of butterscotch pudding as it’s not for sale over here. And have to admit to not being keen on anything from a box – except frozen cheesecake. It’s horrid, I know. But first thing in the morning and I don’t care! So pleased to read that Jody uses bay leaf in the custard – oh, so good! Especially fresh.

    • Well, that makes us even, Johnny–I’m not sure I’ve even seen frozen cheesecake, but it does sound dreadful. Regarding the pudding in a box – consider yourself lucky to have escaped. You’re right about the bay leaf! Ken

  8. These early efforts – and their poor results – would have urged me to foist it off on the nearby crack (butterscotch?) team at Cook’s Illustrated. Let Ms. Mullins, Lan Lam and the gang do the trial and error to avoid spousal friction at home…. may be why pastry chefs tend to do their own thing and not intermingle much with line cooks, etc. Great results though. Warm soups made here nearly every day since a few days before Christmas and no end in sight!

  9. Ken,Jody,

    Should I serve at room temp or chilled? Cannot wait to try this one!! Another genius gluten free option!

    Miss seeing you both.


    • You know, the world parses itself into those who hard head over heels in love with caramel based flavors… and those who aren’t. I know which side of the fence you come down on. Thanks for commenting. Ken

  10. Butterscotch crack… and here we were, doing quite nicely with Naomi Duguid’s Burmese salads. OK, I lie, I made ricotta cookies too, flavored with aniseed. Maybe butterscotch custard can be next, even if I can’t work it off with a snow shovel.

  11. I don’t know how you’ll top that. Perfect. (And thanks for not doing the obligatory healthy January diet stuff. Wake me up in a month or so when it’s all over.)

    • Ha! You win a Butterscotch Custard! Isn’t it dreadful–if there’s one thing that makes me want to turn off NPR, it all the year-in-review stories. The only thing more tedious is the the spate of newspaper articles about the psychology of resolutions, dieting, exercise, blah-blah-blah. Ken

  12. This pudding is fit for man or beast. :-) I just said “OH MY G-D!” out loud. This recipe looks amazing. Butterscotch and salt – a lovely and unique combination of flavors. Geez louise, it’s freezing cold where you live. Stay warm, and eat a lot of this pudding! :-) Best – Shanna

    • It is a bit chilly where we live. Two nights after the storm the temperature dropped to -1. I cannot tell you how much fun it is to try and take your pug for a walk in those kind temperatures. But that’s okay, I’m not originally from New England–I’m from Michigan, where it gets REALLY cold. To paraphrase what they say about Arizona–it’s okay, it’s DRY cold. Happy New Year! Ken

      • Hi, Ken,
        Michigan, yes – I have been to Ann Arbor a few times. We lived in Cleveland for four years. I remember walking my Sealyham Terrier in blizzards and sub-zero temps. I can certainly relate to your adventures with the pug. You and Jody are smart to stay as warm as possible (when possible), and cook some great food! New England sounds beautiful, despite the “dry” cold. ;-) We have “dry” heat in NM, but it certainly doesn’t make it any more doable.

  13. I’m flashing on this moment my freshman year of college when my roommate attempted to make pudding — maybe it was custard — and she ended up throwing her whisk on the counter and screaming that it just couldn’t be done. I understand where Jody is coming from on this one. That frightful episode scared me away from attempting it on my own, but this recipe is softly calling my name.

    • Molly–I don’t know what happened to your comment. For some reason it refuses to show up in this queue. In any event, that’s custard calling your name, not pudding. But our experience has intrigued me. I think we both assumed, Hey, most people make pudding from a box–how hard can it be? Well, that depends on how you feel about cornstarch. And how diluted your base flavor will be by the thickeners. But to be honest, I don’t know. There is no French or Italian pudding equivalent that I know of with anything the like the popularity of their custards. There is mousse, of course, which we may tackle in a post someday because in my opinion it’s one of the babies that was thrown out with the bathwater when restaurants got all hip and fusion-y back in the 80′s. A well-made chocolate mousse is a wonderful thing. As is panna cotta. But neither of these things is, strictly speaking, a pudding. Get better soon.


    • I suspect it probably is pretty straightforward to get, although I’m not sure what it might be called in England. Do you get Demerara sugar? Both turbinado and Demerara are lightly refined cane sugars to which a bit of molasses has been added. Some people maintain that the crystals of turbinado are slightly bigger; others that they’re the same. Demerara was the colonial name for Guyana, the source of the sugar; tubinado comes from the method of using turbines to infuse the sugar with molasses. I think for all intents and purposes you can substitute one for the other. We use a fair amount of turbinado sugar simply because it seems a bit more flavorful than plain white sugar, and because it’s less refined. In any event, I think you’ll enjoy the custard. Ken

    • Oops. Minor correction. Demerara doesn’t have any molasses added to it. It gets its brown color from it’s lack of refinement (there’s something suspect in that sentence), since it’s made from the initial crystallization of the sugar in its processing and contains elements from the sugar cane that are lost in subsequent processing, with additional crystallizations. Ken

  14. Made this yesterday and enjoyed it after Valentine’s Dinner! However, it was liquid on the bottom half of each custard dish. I baked at 300 for 70 min…should it be maybe 350 degrees?

    • Hmm, I’m currently in Pennsylvania and Jody’s unavailable, undoubtedly shovelling out our Boston driveway so she can deal with the wedding (!!!) at Rialto after another foot of snow last night. I’ll check with when I get back, bit we made two versions and I believe both were at 300 degrees. Ours weren’t liquid at the bottom, more like a correctly cooked crème caramel, i.e. woogly. Also, our were much firmer after chilling. But let me Che k with Jody and I’ll get back to you. Thanks. Ken

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