Custards, Puddings & Mousse Basics
The common denominators for custard, pudding, and mousse are creamy, rich, and silky in your mouth when you eat them. They are usually served chilled or at room temperature and they contain milk or cream. Often some type of starch or gelatin is used to bind the ingredients and give them structure.
Custard, by definition is made with eggs, which gives it structure and a luscious texture. Because the egg flavor predominates in custards, it is crucial to use the freshest eggs possible. Eggs are extremely fragile and must be cooked slowly over a low temperature and cooled after cooking to ensure that they do not overcook or curdle and ruin the custard. Custards can be cooked on the stove top or in the oven, usually in a water bath. The key to properly-made stove top custard cooking it slowly and removing it from the heat before it over cooks. The custard continues to cook even after it is removed from the heat and most recipes call for straining the custard through a sieve, to remove any bits of egg that may have coagulated, and then chilling it quickly over an ice bath. The key to a properly-made baked custard is to remove it from the oven while is still loose and jiggly in the center. It is then left in the water bath and as it cools, it finishes cooking and sets up to the perfect consistency once it cools. Crème brûlée, flan, and even cheesecake and pumpkin pie filling are all examples of custards.
Puddings almost always have an added thickener, such as corn starch or flour, instead of or in addition to eggs. Puddings can be silky and smooth, as with traditional chocolate pudding, they can be more cake-like and dense, as with steamed or bread puddings, and they can be thick and chewy, as with rice or tapioca puddings. Puddings can be cooked by steaming, boiling, and baking and are sometimes only chilled, depending on which type you are making.
Pudding is surprisingly popular and throughout the world and many cultures have some version of pudding. The British are known for their steamed puddings, which are usually dense and rich. Rice and grain puddings are common in the Middle and Far East and often have interesting flavorings like cardamom, rose water, and saffron. In Latin and South America, puddings are made with ingredients such as corn, coconut, cinnamon, and caramel. In the Caribbean, baked puddings are often made with dark rum and heavy spices such as allspice and vanilla.
Mousse is a pudding that is combined with whipped cream or egg whites. Mousse is very light and airy and is served chilled and sometimes even frozen. Because mousse gets most of its structure from whipped cream or eggs, both volatile ingredients that deflate over time, it is often fortified with gelatin, which helps to maintain structure and texture and allows it to last longer. To make mousse, whipped egg whites or cream are gently folded into a cool pudding base until everything is incorporated. It is imperative that the mousse not be over-mixed or the whites or cream lose air and make the mousse watery instead of light and airy. Mousse is usually spooned or piped into a glass and chilled until it is served. Mousse comes in an endless variety of flavors, chocolate being the most common.