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Posted on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 11:20 a.m.

Sweet onion custard - bring a taste of the 19th century south to your dinner table

By Jessica Webster


Savory custards have long been a southern favorite.

Jessica Webster |

I recently joined a new book group. A book group that actually reads books. This in itself is a big deal, as the other book group I've been a member of for 10 years hasn't read a book in about six.

But in addition to actually having to (getting to) read and discuss books, this group also prepares meals that complement or are synced to the material we're reading together.

Sometimes the concept can be a stretch. We had to get creative when we read "The Art of Fielding," as most of the characters existed on protein shakes and beer.

Last month, though, I convinced the group to read one of my favorite recent discoveries — a book about time travel to the antebellum south, written by the fantastic African-American science fiction author Octavia E. Butler. "Kindred" is a magical book, if you haven't read it, more historical fiction than science fiction, and a rare first-person slavery narrative.

What made this book perfect for the eating and reading book group is that it gave us all the excuse to explore the world of food from the 19th century South. Most of the food references in "Kindred" involved beaten biscuits, corn gruel and stews made from leftover table scraps. Though there's something to be said for authentic experiences, we turned to the internet for possibly more palatable ideas.

There were two publications that were especially helpful in painting a gastronomic picture of life in the 1800s. "Plantation Sketches," written by Margaret Devereux, the daughter and wife of wealthy Virginia plantation owners, has a paragraph describing a typical meal served to company. It's strikingly lavish, with ham, two preparations of turkey (one roasted and one boiled and stuffed with oysters), as well as beef and mutton. All this would be augmented by cranberries, celery, pickles and about a half dozen vegetable dishes.

I took the inspiration for my dish to pass from a 19th century cookbook discovered by Ann Arbor's own Janice Longone, curator of American culinary history at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

"Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen," was written in 1866 by Malinda Russell. Its significance as a documentation of southern black cooking was noted in a story in the New York Times as being the earliest documented cookbook by an African-American woman.

Among the recipes for cakes and puff pastries, I saw a mention of sweet onion custards. I was intrigued. Not only would this dish work well in the historical context of the book we were reading; it might also be something I'd be interested in cooking with some regularity. Caramelized onions are, after all, one of the best foods ever.

I didn't have time to track down my own facsimile of Malinda Russell's cookbook (though I fully intend to, and soon), so I went on the hunt for a similar recipe. I found this one, shared by southern food enthusiast Diana Rattray on Southern Food.

The recipe calls for Vidalia onions; I've made it with both Vidalia and yellow onions and find that once they are caramelized, they're both beautifully sweet.

Remember that caramelizing onions is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep the heat on the low side of medium as you cook, and avoid letting onions brown too early or burn.

I experimented with using about half of the recommended salt, and found that the dish did not suffer for it.

Sweet Onion Custard (adapted slightly from


  • 4 large Vidalia onions (about 6 medium), halved and thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Pepper, to taste
  • chopped chives or green onion for garnish


In a large skillet over medium heat, cook onions in butter, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden in color - about 25 to 30 minutes. Turn the heat down if the onions start to brown as they cook.

Let onions cool to room temperature. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together milk, eggs and egg yolk, salt, nutmeg and pepper. Add cooked onions; stir well. Transfer to a well-buttered 1 1/2-quart baking dish or large deep-dish pie plate. Bake at 325 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes, or until lightly golden and a clean knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle with chives or green onion. Serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.

Jessica Webster leads the Food & Grocery section for You can follow her on Twitter or email her at



Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 10:47 p.m.

I think most online recipes underestimate the time for really good carmelized onions...expect to be working on those for about an hour to make sure they are really great. Low and slow.


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 7:28 p.m.

Jessica, love the concept of your group and impressed that you actually read books! This sounds really good. Thanks for sharing!

Sarah Rigg

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 1:01 p.m.

Butler died a few years ago, and I took the opportunity to read all the rest of her books that I hadn't gotten to yet. The Xenogenesis (Lilith's Brood) series is WAY trippy, but I also like "Kindred" and pretty much every other thing she's written, even the earliest stuff that's not up to the level of her later books.

Jessica Webster

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 5:47 p.m.

I also really loved "Fledgling," and am catching up on the rest, slowly. I discovered Octavia Butler 4-5 years ago, when Janelle Monae listed her as a primary inspiration.