Kitchn Love Letters

The $4 British Grocery Staple I Use for All My Summer Desserts

published Jun 3, 2023
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trifle close up
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

The first time I had proper English custard, I was in the charming seaside town of Portrush, in Northern Ireland. My dad, ever the sweet tooth, had ordered apple crumble for dessert at the tiny inn we were dining at. The little dish arrived with all the expected sweet-crunchy topping and cinnamon apples. But instead of ice cream, it was drizzled with a creamy sauce. We both loved it, so we inquired about the magic sauce and the server looked at us like we were joking. She smirked and said, “Go on then, it’s Bird’s!”

After a quick consult about what on Earth the server had just said (accents can be thick in Ireland, I Googled “Beard’s”), I learned that Bird’s is a brand of custard powder.

Credit: Ivy Manning

What’s So Great About Bird’s Custard Powder?

Vanilla custard sauce is so linked to the British Isles that the French call the sauce crème anglaise or English custard. It’s traditionally made with egg yolks, sugar, milk, and vanilla cooked slowly over low heat. While making crème anglaise is not rocket science, it does take some finesse, as the sauce can curdle easily when cooked, turning the smooth sauce into a chunky, sweet scrambled egg in seconds. Enter: custard powder.

Invented by pharmacist Alfred Bird in 1837 for his wife, who was allergic to eggs, the shelf-stable powder is made from cornstarch, salt, natural flavorings, and annatto, for color. When whisked into milk with a little sugar, it makes a nearly instant custard sauce. Bird’s has become synonymous with custard sauce in general, such is its popularity.

For every 1 cup of milk, add 1 heaping tablespoon of custard powder and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Briefly cooked, the mixture will create a thick, pourable sauce that tastes creamy, eggy, and a little sweet, with just a hint of vanilla. It won’t curdle, even at a simmer. 

Bird’s custard powder is sold in a bold red, yellow, and blue container with a mid-century modern logo of three birds. A 300-gram canister (roughly 10.6 ounces) makes about 40 servings and the package lasts for about a year. (Be sure to check the date on the lid for the “best by” date to get the freshest product.) I buy it online, but you can also find it at grocery stores and shops in the imported food section, like World Market.  

Credit: Ivy Manning

What’s the Best Way to Use Bird’s Custard Powder?

In the United Kingdom, custard powder is used to make a pourable dessert sauce for steamed puddings, pies, crisps, and sponge cakes. In the U.K. and Australia, it’s common to serve warm or cold custard sauce with desserts where Americans might naturally add ice cream. 

If made with a bit less liquid, Bird’s will be a lot like vanilla pudding. Once cooled, the thick custard can be and used in layered desserts like trifles, parfaits, and as a base for ice cream. It is also an ingredient in recipes for egg-free cookies and the Canadian favorite, Naimaino bars.

Credit: Ivy Manning

During berry season, I frequently make a custard sauce using Bird’s and pour it over fresh strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries. When layered in jars with crushed shortbread and berries, they make for nearly instant portable desserts for picnics. In the winter, I use Bird’s custard powder to make a banana cream pudding with layers of Nilla Wafers.

You can also use Bird’s Custard Powder to make frozen custard, add a few tablespoons to buttercream for a richer flavor, and make chocolate pudding by adding cocoa powder to it. 

It may be a bit of a cheat, but Bird’s Custard Powder is an all-rounder that is always there when I need it. 

Buy: Bird’s Custard Powder, $4.43 for 10.6 ounces at Instacart

Have you tried Bird’s Custard Powder? Tell us about it in the comments below.