Life is hard. Pudding is easy. • Or is it the other way around? • I wondered that last week when two out of three homemade pudding tests fell flat. It was a Goldilocks experience. One was too runny, another too thick, and the third was just right. Better than just right. • When the final attempt yielded perfection, I knew this for sure: Pudding makes life easier. And who isn't for that when gas prices are sky-high and airplanes are grounded? • The silky, slightly sweet dessert is well-regarded as a comfort food, one of the first treats given to young children. Nothing to chew, but pure, simple goodness sitting on the taste buds. • Bon Appetit magazine named pudding the dessert of the year for 2008. Just this year? How about for all time? That's the kind of longevity the humble pudding enjoys.
My feelings for pudding have been muddied by little plastic cups of goo, perfect for school lunches or adults on diets. Low-carb or low-fat, portion-control pudding cups are certainly a better choice than the giant bagels or birthday cake crowding the office break room.
However, these are emergency puddings. Same goes for powdery boxed mixes that promise memories in minutes. They will do in a pinch, but compared with homemade puddings, they can taste like the packaging they come in. If you're like me, you won't really believe this until you make pudding from scratch.
A few quality ingredients, a stove and a pan, and in 15 minutes molten heaven will be ready to head for the fridge in stemmed glasses or earthenware cups. Pudding, just like Mom made. Or maybe the way you wish Mom had made it.
When I want to get to the obsessive root of a dish, I turn to Christopher Kimball, the founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated.
He and his staff are relentless testers of techniques, equipment and recipes. Go against their advice at your own risk.
I did that on a simple vanilla pudding recipe from The Dessert Bible (Little, Brown and Co., 2000) and the result was a soupy mess. Good taste, but in the end it went down the drain.
In the book, Kimball laments the complications that have grown up around pudding. Baked for 45 minutes in a water bath? Forget it, he says. The results are more densely rich mousse than soft pudding. Keep it on the stove and stir gently. Vigorous whisking may prevent the pudding from setting up because cornstarch is sensitive to a heavy hand. Who knew?
If you're making chocolate pudding, a variety of products will give you the taste you crave. Bittersweet or dark adds interesting depth; for the cocoa, look for Dutch-processed, which has richer flavor. For vanilla pudding, use real flavoring, not imitation.
The best thickener for pudding is cornstarch, not eggs (too much like custard) or flour (too much like gravy). Be wary of recipes with a lot of cornstarch. My second failed attempt included 1/2 cup of cornstarch for 3 cups of milk (use whole, low-fat, skim or half-and-half). It didn't have the creamy mouthfeel of pudding, nor the shine. I felt like I was eating chocolate-flavored butter, even though there was no butter in the recipe.
The runny vanilla pudding was a product of not heating the ingredients to a high enough temperature. This is what facilitates the pudding setting as it cools in the refrigerator.
Get the mixture to 180 degrees, which should take about 5 minutes. I stopped my gentle stirring (with a wooden spoon, not a whisk) at 5 minutes, even though my candy thermometer hadn't reached the prescribed level. The mixture was bubbling and thickening, so I pulled it off the heat. I regretted trusting my noodle over the thermometer later when the pudding didn't set.
I followed the instructions closely for my third attempt. Bingo. One of my wolverines was licking the bowl gleefully, the other wary after the first failure. His loss.
My only complaint? The recipe didn't make enough.
Make your life easy and double up.
Contact Janet K. Keeler at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586. She gives weekday dinner ideas on her blog, Stir Crazy, at www.blogs.