As a Christmas gift one year, hubby received a ‘care’ package from home. Among the Jammie Dodgers, Jelly Babies, Digestives and Cadbury Flakes was a bright yellow and red tin of “Bird’s Custard Powder”. Identifying the other childhood favorites was easy, but what was this Bird’s Custard Powder? Not only had I never heard of it, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
The tin of powdered custard sat in the cupboard for quite awhile until one very cold, snowy winter’s night, neither one of us wanted to go out, but were looking for a little ‘something’ after dinner. Hmmmm, we had this Bird’s Custard Powder in the cupboard……
The directions were fairly simply ….
Mix 2 tablespoons of custard powder with 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar (according to sweetness desired) in a bowl. From 1 pint of milk, mix a little milk into the custard powder mixture to form a smooth paste. In a small pot, heat the remaining milk over medium heat and then slowly whisk in the powder mixture. Continue stirring until custard thickens.
We poured the hot creamy mixture into dessert bowls and set them into the frig to cool. An hour later, with a dollop of whipped cream, we decided to ‘try’ our powdered dessert. It wasn’t bad! It ended up being a long, cold winter and we eventually used all the custard powder for ’emergency’ desserts.
Little did I know at that time how popular this yellow and red tin was. Many trips to Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Iceland and other U.K. supermarkets made me well aware of this ‘must have’ staple for most U.K. kitchens. Not only can you make thickened custards (aka ‘puddings’ in the U.S. – Jell-O puddings, Royal puddings), but it is a key ingredient for trifles, pie and cake fillings, or as a pouring custard over desserts. There are actually recipes based on using this as the main ingredient.
I asked many Brits what was this powdered substance. Interestingly, no one knew ….. and were not the least bit interested in finding out, but I had to.
Custard in the U.K. is what we in the U.S. would call a “pudding”. It is a mixture of milk, eggs and sugar which is heated until it thickens, and has been an important part of the British diet since Medieval times. Food historians have credited the Romans as being the first to actually combine cooked eggs with other ingredients to create savory and sweet foods. The earliest printed reference for custard/pudding is 1730. As always, it was the upper classes who were able to enjoy these sweet concoctions.
Alfred Bird, a registered pharmacist, chemist and an inventor, was born in Nympsfield, England in 1811. Alfred was the loving husband to Elizabeth. Elizabeth had food allergies – one of which was an allergy to eggs (the other was to yeast). As a concerned husband who wanted his wife to be able to have something sweet to pour onto her desserts, as was the style, without suffering an allergic reaction, Mr. Bird went into his laboratory.
Combining corn flour, sugar and flavorings, he created an egg-free, powdered substitute, which, when heated with milk, thickens and pours like custard. As happens so frequently, at a dinner party the dried-custard powder, which was suppose to be served to his wife only, was also accidentally served to all his dinner guests. They overwhelmingly enjoyed it. It was then that Alfred realized his ‘invention’ might have mass appeal.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Bird formed Alfred Bird and Sons Ltd. and opened a successful shop in Birmingham, England to sell his Bird’s Custard Powder. This was 1837. Six years later, the creative Mr. Bird invented another item that would ultimately transform the baking industry ….. baking powder.
His egg-less custard and baking powder soon became household staples, as did his other products – blancmange powder, jelly powder, and egg substitutes. Others saw the success of these products and the competition began, but they couldn’t compete with the savvy Mr. Bird.
As a talented businessman, Alfred realized the power of promotions and advertising, creating fun and memorable advertising campaigns. Being touted as a healthy and nutritious food, children were often featured in his advertisements. Soldiers in WWI were provided with Bird’s custard as a healthful addition to their diet. It wasn’t long before Americans began using custard powder and other cornstarch derivatives as thickeners for custard-type desserts.
From an advertisement in 1918 : “At so small a cost as Bird’s Custard, there are few dishes in our daily diet which provide so much real nourishment and body-building material.
BIRD’s Custard is not only a delectable dainty, enjoyed by everybody, but is also a genuine whole-some food, which may be consumed freely by the children and grown-ups, with the confidence that, money for money, no better value is obtainable.
There is no shortage of BIRD’s Custard. There is plenty for everyone. We are working hard to supply the exceptional demands of the Military and the Public.”
Alfred Bird died in his home in 1878 at the age of 67, but not before passing the company on to his son, Alfred Bird, Jr. who then passed the company onto his son. In his obituary in the journal of the Chemical Society (of which he was a fellow), Alfred Bird Sr’s. skills and research were discussed at length, but never a mention of his other achievement, the famous Bird’s Custard Powder.
Bird’s was purchased by the General Foods Corporation, which was itself taken over by Philip Morris in the 1980s and then merged into Kraft Foods. Kraft Foods sold the Bird’s Custard brand in 2004 to Premier Foods, the current owners. Bird’s Custard can now be enjoyed by ex-pats around the World, from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Germany, Austria, Sweden, India, Canada and the U.S.A.
The recipes using Bird’s Custard are too numerous to list. There are cookbooks and cooking websites dedicated to using this powdered custard as an ingredient. Now I know what to do with this yellow and red tin. How about you?
References: The Food Timeline, Wikipedia, Bird & Sons, Geni.com, Our Warwickshire.com
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