In our house in Eunice, Louisiana, in the 1960s and ’70s, bouillie au lait (milk custard) was a comfort food. We pronounced it “B-yo-ly,” and sometimes ate it for breakfast or as an after-school snack. In Momma’s childhood home in Ville Platte during the Great Depression, bouillie au lait was survival food. It was affordable for poor families like theirs because it required only three ingredients: milk, flour, and something sweet, such as molasses, honey, or, if available, refined sugar. Once cooked, the pudding thickened, and once eaten, it expanded in the belly. Momma said she and her siblings (my uncles Paillasse and Florence) took their bouillie au lait to school in little enameled lunch pails. The concoction wasn’t terribly nutritious, but it got them through the day. By lunchtime, the bouillie au lait had formed a skin across the top, like puddings and custards tend to do. “The skin was my favorite part,” Momma says in one of the chapters of my memoir.
Momma and her brothers weren’t the only children in Ville Platte to take bouillie au lait to school. “Everybody ate bouillie au lait,” Momma said. “Some ate it more than once a day” because times were so tough. Another common school lunch was a piece of cornbread, a little sugar, and milk, served in a bowl. As she grew up and became a wife and mother, Momma never tired of either of these two meals, and she instilled the same affection for them in each of us children (she had nine of us and we had lots of bouillie au lait and cornbread and milk!).
In my modern take on bouillie au lait, I am fortunate enough to be able to add more than the three original ingredients. In addition to the milk, flour, and sugar, I add butter (to help the roux form easier) and some vanilla in the end. An alternative, fancier chocolate recipe includes the addition of cocoa powder.
BOUILLIE AU LAIT
2 cups of whole milk, pre-heated
½ cup of sugar
2 pats of butter
3 heaping tablespoons of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of vanilla
Pre-warm the milk and sugar in either the microwave (two minutes) or on the stove in a saucepan. Do not to let it come to a boil; should be warm enough in about three minutes. Stir to fully dissolve the sugar. Set aside.
In a separate pan, melt the butter on low heat, making sure it does not turn brown. Briskly whisk in the flour until it is fully incorporated into the butter, like you’re making a quick, blond roux. Slowly add the warmed milk until it is all fully blended, whisking vigorously. If you get lumps, whisk some more until smooth (although my sister Glenda loves the lumps). Raise the heat to medium, and stir until the mixture comes to a soft bubble, about two-three minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. The Bouille au Lait will thicken as it cools. Serve hot, warm, or chilled.
Variation: For chocolate Bouille au Lait, in place of the ½ cup of sugar, add 2 tablespoons of dark cocoa powder that has been pre-mixed with 2/3 cup of sugar before adding to the milk, and then warming it.
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