Sickbed Custard

sick bed custardI’ve been battling a cold for the last week, so I decided to try a colonial cure, Amelia Simmons’s “sickbed custard”:

“Scald a quart milk, sweeten and salt a little, whip 3 eggs and stir in, bake on coals in a pewter vessel.”

In the 18th century, many medicinal vessels were made from pewter. It was sturdy and relatively affordable. Lower-quality pewter also usually contained toxic lead, so I hope Simmons was using the good stuff or she may have been sickening people with her sickbed custard.

I don’t own any pewter, in any case, so I used porcelain ramekins for my custard. I also cut back on the milk in the recipe, since it seemed like the milk-egg ratio was too high. Finally, I baked the custards in a hot water bath, which worked well but was a little too much effort for a sick girl. (Ideally, someone else makes you this dish!)

Modern custard recipes usually call for vanilla, but that wasn’t used in America in colonial times. Thomas Jefferson first brought vanilla beans back from France in the 1890s, and as Richard Sax noted in Classic Home Desserts, vanilla extract wasn’t widely available until the mid-19th century. Eighteenth-century custards were flavored with wine or brandy, tea, or spices. I added nutmeg to Simmons’s recipe since it seemed so bland — but I guess that was sort of the point.

Sickbed Custard

3 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar, plus additional for sprinkling on top
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2. Scald the milk. Remove the skin that forms on top, then stir in the sugar and salt.

3. Beat the eggs well with a whisk. Add about 1/4 cup of the milk to the eggs and blend, then pour eggs into the rest of the milk in a steady stream and whisk well.

4. Set six 6-ounce ramekins in a roasting pan. Pour the custard into the cups, then sprinkle the nutmeg on top of each. Pour hot water in pan to a depth of halfway up the sides of the cups.

5. Bake custards until they are set but still jiggly in the center, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove ramekins from the water bath and let sit briefly. Top each custard with a little cane or brown sugar and serve warm.

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3 thoughts on “Sickbed Custard

  1. Funny, whenever we were really sick as kids, my mom made custard. I never thought it helped anything, especially when my stomach didn’t feel great. It’s nutritious, though, and thinking of it always gives me that feeling of know my mother cared, enough to cook custard in a hot water bath for her kidlings.

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