Pudding

How to Make the Creamiest, Dreamiest Pudding (a Highly Underrated Dessert)

Plus, how to infuse it with any flavor of your choosing.

August 13, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Generally speaking, I’m the guy who shows up to the casual potluck carrying a seven-layer cake with pomegranate seeds individually set into the bittersweet glaze with tweezers. I don’t recommend being that person. As such, I’m here to talk to you about pudding.

Pudding, at least the American, cornstarch-based version, is about as un-tweezery as dessert gets. And it’s got a lot going for it. It can take on a vast range of flavors, from rich chocolate or bourbon to delicate saffron, cinnamon, or jasmine, with a few simple tweaks to the recipe.

Unlike its cousin custard, its taste isn’t dominated by egg yolks, so whatever you add will shine through. And the texture is simply irresistible. You can’t argue with a quick bowl of smooth, silken pudding–particularly when the potluck started an hour ago and you’re still tweezing pomegranate seeds.


The Sad History of Pudding

Pudding is an ancient food, but one that has only recently emerged from a centuries-long streak of terrible branding. From the Latin for “small intestine,” ancient Roman puddings could best be described as boiled sacks of meat and viscera bound together with grain (much like haggis). Medieval flathons, baked egg puddings, were seen as a health food, and often featured savory ingredients like eels.

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Top Comment:
“In the UK growing up, All desserts were referred to as pudding. Birds custard is still the best known "go to". English custard is not made with eggs but sauce Anglaise (usually served in nice restaurants), is. Hot custard is served in many homes and cafes with sponge puddings, tarts and pies.”
— sue V.
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Though sweet puddings were also known during this time, cornstarch-thickened versions weren’t developed until the 1840s, when an English chemist named Alfred Bird invented them for his egg-intolerant wife. Bird marketed his product well, but things fell apart again in the world of pudding PR by the 1930s with the advent of an egg yolk and cornstarch dessert called cold shape, a name one American author described as “repellent and reminiscent of the grave.” In Commonwealth countries today, cold shape is out, but blancmange—from the French for “white food”—is unfortunately in. Alas. Pudding deserves better.


How Pudding Works

To make pudding, you need to do two things: First, you heat up a few ingredients while stirring. Second, you cool down those ingredients while not stirring. If you can do that, you can make pudding. But to understand why you’re doing these simple steps, let’s take a closer look.

Cornstarch, the thickener in classic American pudding, is made up of tiny, dense starch granules. Put them in liquid and nothing much happens. But heat them close to boiling and they start to expand as they absorb water, and the crystalline structures within them dissolve.

Amylose and amylopectin, the carbohydrates that make up starch, disperse into the liquid medium as they’re heated. This process is called gelatinization, and you can see it happening without a microscope. You’ll be stirring the thin liquid and it will suddenly become much thicker and turn translucent. This is good.

Once the starch has gelatinized fully, it needs to be left alone. As it cools, a second chemical process occurs–gelation. Gelation is the creation of a network of polymers, in this case carbohydrates, making a solid. Basically, the amylose and amylopectin that were locked together in those starch granules link back up as they cool (the technical term is retrogradation) in a much less organized, more spread-out lattice.

Contemplate the majesty of science the next time you’re making pudding, or not. It’ll work either way.


How to Make Any Kind of Pudding

There are lots of pudding recipes on the internet. Most of them are good. I’m not going to claim that I alone have cracked the code. In fact, this recipe is cribbed heavily from Alice Medrich’s excellent chocolate pudding. What I offer you, instead, is a basic template. A variety of optional flavorings are listed so you’ll know how and when to incorporate them, but feel free to experiment. As long as you heat while stirring and cool while not stirring, it will end up as pudding. I like mine very delicate, and I think this amount of cornstarch makes the most sensuous, satisfying texture. But don’t take my word for it. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Your Any-Flavor Pudding Base

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 2 cups half-and-half (473 ml) OR 1 ¾ cups whole milk (414 ml) and ¼ cup heavy cream (59 ml)
  • 1/3 cup (66g) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (17g) cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Flavor options:

For chocolate pudding (use both):

  • 1/3 cup (28 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 to 4 ounces (85 grams to 115 grams) dark chocolate, finely chopped

To infuse:

  • 2 black or jasmine tea bags
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, turmeric, or cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg or crushed saffron threads
  • 3 pandan leaves, tied in a loose knot
  • 2 tablespoons ground coffee

Liquid flavorings:

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom or rose water
  • Up to 1/4 cup liquor or liqueur

Method

  1. If infusing, combine half-and-half (or milk and cream mixture) with your chosen ingredient, heat to a simmer, then steep for 10 minutes before straining.

  2. Combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cocoa powder, if using, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk to combine.

  3. Add a splash of the milk mixture to the saucepan and whisk to form a smooth paste. Then stir in the rest of the mixture.

  4. Place over medium heat and stir constantly, until the pudding thickens and bubbles, about five minutes. Stir for another minute. Add the chopped chocolate, if using, and stir until incorporated. Then remove from heat.

  5. Stir in liquid flavorings, if using, and pour immediately into serving bowls. Let rest on the counter until set.

  6. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Or disinvite your guests and eat it all yourself.

How would you flavor your pudding? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Sam is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at arecipefordisaster.org.

19 Comments

GigiR August 22, 2020
Hello. As a chore, my job was to make dessert for our family. Very often that was pudding. My Mum wanted it done in a double boiler. That way, I wouldn’t scorch the milk. Scorching is just a little past scalding the milk. For a kid learning to cook, success is important. No one of our family would want to eat a badly prepared dessert effort. It may take slightly longer than one pan.
 
[email protected] August 21, 2020
London Fog flavour using Earl grey tea and vanilla
 
[email protected] August 21, 2020
London Fog flavour using Earl grey rea and vanilla
 
sue V. August 21, 2020
Very interesting article. In the UK growing up, All desserts were referred to as pudding. Birds custard is still the best known "go to". English custard is not made with eggs but sauce Anglaise (usually served in nice restaurants), is. Hot custard is served in many homes and cafes with sponge puddings, tarts and pies.
 
Rosalind P. August 21, 2020
Yes. Lived in the UK for a while. Made lots of faux pas around our "shared language". Knickers. Period. Pud (pudding). Lift. and more. Pudding was what the dessert course was called, the generic name for dessert.
 
Christine August 21, 2020
My U.S. Southern dad would ask, "What's for puddin'"? In my arrogant teen years, I would reply, "Cake tonight, not puddin" and ask why he called dessert puddin'. "Honey, it what I was brought up to call it"! Years later, I learned that two words he often used--pudding, mess o' whatever, were British usage. I once had a recipe I never tried, a warm version of strawberry shortcake, that uses warm sweet biscuits (the quick bread), slightly cooked strawberries and a warm custard, sounds delicious.
 
Rosalind P. August 21, 2020
How much does this chemistry depend on the fat in the liquid? You know where I'm going here: can the liquid be just milk? I know it wouldn't feel or taste as rich, but would it thicken? Always looking for ways to cut fat a bit.
 
GigiR August 22, 2020
I don’t think the thickening relies on the fat percentage so much as the quantity of cornstarch. The quantity of fat give richness to pudding.
 
Rosalind P. August 22, 2020
Thank you
 
Deborah J. August 18, 2020
Interesting that the picture shows what looks like Caramel or Butterscotch pudding but there is no mention about how to make those flavors!
 
Diane August 18, 2020
Replace the white sugar with dark brown sugar. That will give it the flavour & colour. Add 2 Tsp. butter once pudding has thickened.
 
Mary L. August 15, 2020
Tried this last night. Followed it to the T but not sure what i did wrong because it definitely didnt thicken on the stove in 5 minutes. Even when i let it go another 10 mins longer it still didnt thicken enough. But i placed it in molds anyway and chilled it overnight. This morning it was still really liquid-like and no where near firm. Still tasted good but any ideas why mine didn’t set?
 
Author Comment
Sam S. August 16, 2020
Hmm, what flavor did you make? Hard to know what went wrong, but if you cook it for too long, the starch can break down, keeping it from setting. It should thicken in the pan, but not that much. Let me know if you try it again!
 
Mary L. August 18, 2020
I used the chocolate flavor recipe. Cocoa. Chocolate callebaut discs. Was I supposed to warm up the half and half first?
 
S K. August 19, 2020
Same thing happened to me. I used 1 1/2 c milk and 1/2 c cream because that’s what I had. It got thicker after 5 min on the heat, I could draw a line on the spatula and it didn’t close back up. Loose liquid after 6 hrs in the refrigerator. It tasted great but more like chocolate soup. ?? I’m thinking of whipping cream and making a mousse tomorrow?
 
S K. August 19, 2020
What is the temperature that it should be before taking it off of the heat? I don’t think mine was too hot but maybe it wasn’t hot enough for gelatinization. It did melt the chocolate when I added that. Thanks
 
Diane August 14, 2020
I love how you've broken this down into a template, ready-made for customization. Growing up, pudding was always my favourite dessert. I swear it was my lemon pudding that induced a marriage proposal by my now-husband. It's still one of his favourite desserts. And each time I make chocolate pudding I ride the magic carpet all the way back to my childhood.
 
Aditi August 14, 2020
Smitten Kitchen has a lovely caramel pudding, https://smittenkitchen.com/2010/01/caramel-pudding/ - I followed it almost exactly except for stirring in a little bit of butter at the end.
 
Ann S. August 13, 2020
Just to be clear, if you're not infusing, you add the dairy component cold (basically, start with step 2), right?