Food & Drink

Boiled Custard Memories

A beloved holiday drink sparks a trove of sweet recollections

Photo: Caroline Sanders

Last Christmas, Garden & Gun published a story about boiled custard, a milk-and-egg-based drink made for generations in the South, especially in the Cumberland Gap region of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Many readers had never heard of the old-fashioned Appalachian drink, but for others, the story sparked a cache of warm childhood memories, and for others still, it continues to be a living tradition made in their homes each year. 

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and every holiday, my great-aunts made us boiled custard to go with homemade coconut cake for dessert. I learned to make it by watching them labor over the stove on those long days of cooking and baking. I was often mesmerized by how they turned milk, sugar, vanilla, and eggs into such a deliciously rich drink. Sometimes they would add a carton of French vanilla ice cream to it, too, though I liked it best without. As an adult, I used to make it myself until one disastrous holiday, I poured the hot mixture into a vintage cobalt blue pitcher. Luckily, I poured it over the sink because the whole bottom fell out of that beautiful pitcher, and I had to watch as all of the boiled custard went promptly down the drain. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to make it, but I think I will attempt it again this year. I think I might just make a coconut cake too. –Katherine E. 

I look forward to my mom making her boiled custard every year. I’ve tried to recreate her magic, but some things just can’t be done! —David T. 

Our piano teacher served this at a small Christmas party for us students when I was in elementary school in Holly Bluff, Mississippi, in the 1950s. I’ve never forgotten how wonderful it was. —Rose D. 

My great-aunt Bess made boiled custard when people in town were sick, since it is thought to be strengthening. When she was ninety years old, her son had taken her car away, so she would put a jar in a brown paper bag, put on her wig and her mink stole (even in the dead of summer), and walk to deliver the custard. Everyone in town knew if they saw Bessie Vineyard walking with a brown paper bag along the streets of Wharton, Texas, someone was sick. —Barbara M. 

I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, and boiled custard was a special treat my daddy made each Christmas. We served it alongside fresh coconut or orange cake that his mother made, or prune cake my mom made. I have my dad’s recipe but somehow it never tastes as good when I make it. —Lee F. 

I make boiled custard a couple of times during the year and have done so for decades. I layer it in my Christmas trifle, gently sherried. It’s also good to take to someone who is ill, without sherry. —Julia W.

I had never had boiled custard before I met my husband. His great-aunt, who raised his mother, made it every Christmas. When she became too feeble, my husband took over, using a falling apart, yellowed old cookbook. It’s so decadent—like drinking crème brûlée. —Pam J. 

My mother always served boiled custard in a cup at Christmastime. Living on a farm, milk and eggs were plentiful and her boiled custard was a tradition. I never drank it; it was too thick and sweet for me. I guess our childhood Christmas traditions are only memories now. —Ann H. 

I am a native Atlantan. My great-aunt Brownie always made boiled custard during peach season, and now I do, too. It’s so good over a bowl of sliced ripe peaches. —Beth W.

I’m fifty years old and have never had a Christmas without boiled custard. My grandmother made it every year, and when she passed away, my sister took over the tradition. It’s so much better than eggnog! —Susan H. 

My daddy made this every Christmas, and he and my mother disagreed on which was best: his boiled custard or her eggnog. I can still picture him standing at the stove stirring it forever, because that is the secret to good custard. —Yvonne L. 

My mother-in-law, who is ninety-six, was born in a log cabin and raised on a tobacco farm in southern Tennessee. She was raised with boiled custard and my husband still carries on about visits to the family farm and having it at Christmas. I’m going to use this recipe to make him some in December! —Chris S. 

My nana and her sister, Willie, (who were from Kentucky) and my mom (who was born in Tennessee) used to make this special dessert for our family holiday dinners in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised. No one I ever knew had even heard of it. They served it in crystal goblets with homemade whipped cream. My, what a treat! I’ll be making it for the first time this year since you have provided me with a recipe. Thank you, G&G, for a wonderful walk down memory lane. —Jane T. 

Get a recipe for boiled custard here