Homemade pudding is richly rewarding

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.

Hasty pudding

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.

Getting started

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 jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586. She gives weekday dinner ideas on her blog, Stir Crazy, at www.blogs.
tampbay.com/food.

>>dessert

Chocolate Pudding
2 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped or grated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups half-and-half OR 1 1/3 cups whole milk plus 2/3 cup heavy cream (see note)

• Sift the cocoa, salt, sugar and cornstarch onto a piece of wax paper. Place the vanilla and chopped chocolate into a small bowl and set aside.

• Pour sifted ingredients into a medium saucepan set over low heat. Whisk in half-and-half. Increase heat to medium and whisk for 2 minutes. Switch to a wooden spoon. Stir constantly, but gently, with a wooden spoon for an additional 5 minutes, or until mixture bubbles and thickens. At this point, the mixture will still be loose, much thinner than a set pudding.

• Add the chopped chocolate and vanilla and cook for 1 additional minute, stirring very gently but constantly. Make sure that all of the chocolate has melted. It should reach 180 degrees on an instant-read or candy thermometer. Pour into individual ramekins or into a bowl. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Pudding will thicken as it cools. (To prevent the skin that forms on top of the pudding as it cools, place plastic wrap on the surface.)

Note: You can experiment with low-fat or skim milk. The result may not be as rich, but the flavor should still be good.

Makes 4 half-cup servings.

Source: The Dessert Bible by Christopher Kimball (Little, Brown and Co., 2000)

>>dessert

Vanilla Pudding
1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 cups half-and-half (or a combination of whole, low-fat or skim milk with the half-and-half)

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

• Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in a heavy saucepan. Whisk in about 1/3 cup half-and-half until smooth, then whisk in the rest of the half-and-half. Switch to a wooden spoon. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly but very gently, until thickened, about 5 minutes (time will vary). Reduce heat to low and continue stirring gently and slowly until mixture comes to a simmer. It should reach 180 degrees on an instant-read or candy thermometer.

• Cook 1 minute more, not stirring, and remove from heat. Stir in vanilla, and pour into 4 servings dishes. (Do not stir pudding again.)

Makes 4 half-cup servings.

Source: The Dessert Bible by Christopher Kimball (Little, Brown and Co., 2000)

.GOOD TO KNOW

Like pudding
but not

Creme brulee: A rich custard dessert with a blowtorched hard layer of caramel on the top.

Pots de creme: Richer than pudding with lots of egg yolks and whipping cream.

Flan: Like creme brulee but with a soft layer of caramel.

Custard: Similar to pudding, but thickened with eggs. Less thick, it's the dessert sauce called creme anglaise.

Mousse: Includes cream and eggs, but eggs are separated and the whites are whipped until stiff, then folded in to add lightness.

Tapioca/rice pudding: Puddings that include starchy tapioca or rice to absorb liquid.

Homemade pudding is richly rewarding 04/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 9:43am]

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