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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
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
- 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
- 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
- 1 teaspoon orange blossom or rose water
- Up to 1/4 cup liquor or liqueur
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.
Combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cocoa powder, if using, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk to combine.
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.
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.
Stir in liquid flavorings, if using, and pour immediately into serving bowls. Let rest on the counter until set.
Serve chilled or at room temperature. Or disinvite your guests and eat it all yourself.