Pudding. Is there any more perfect food? I ask this in all seriousness, because I’m not sure there is. Pudding, of course, comes in a myriad of styles, shapes, and flavours; eggy custard! Cornstarch! Rice! Tapioca! Butterscotch! Chocolate! Vanilla! For me, however, the one true pudding to rule them all will always be the basic chocolate cornstarch pudding out of The Joy of Cooking. It’s a relatively simple and easy recipe[1. You can see a modified version in my Mexican chocolate pudding recipe.]. The simplicity makes it hard to mess up and you can play with it a fair amount, if you are the sort of person who likes to do that kind of thing. Which you may be.
I suspect my fondness for pudding has its origins in the Tin Palace days, when we used to make it now and then. Usually not for any particular reason, but I always tended to think of it as a special occasion sort of food just the same. Something about the process of laying out all the ingredients and mixing them together and patiently cooking the pudding, waiting for the moment when it went from swirling liquid to a thickened, gloppy pile of chocolately goodness you could pour into whatever roughly pudding-appropriate containers you had lying around. And the waiting, oh, the waiting. Sometimes we used to eat it while it was still warm, but on other occasions we managed to restrain ourselves long enough for it to fully set. It would be thick and creamy and rich, and we used to make it with the intensely dark, literally black Indonesian cocoa powder I can’t seem to find these days. It was sharp and bitter. Serious pudding business. Other people were not always fans of our pudding because of the darkness, the complexity, the layers of flavour.
I, on the other hand, always hated the insipid, sugary, rather watery things that passed as ‘pudding’ in other places. The school cafeteria had clearly never seen anything even vaguely resembling pudding, but I also wasn’t a fan of the ‘pudding cups’ that seemed to be popular among my friends. They were sadly deficient in all the things I expect of pudding, that rich tang, the chocolate intensity, a bare kiss of sugar, just enough to make the chocolate pop. And, of course, that unique flavour you get from cooking things over a gas stove, waiting for the moment starts to coalesce and it goes from being chocolately liquid to pudding. I never could get pudding to behave quite the way I wanted it to on an electric stove. Things really do cook differently on gas and electric, I don’t care what they say. Whoever they are.
Anyway, when I make pudding, I like to use half and half for that richness of flavour. You can just pull out milk, but it’s not quite as good, in my opinion at least. Half and half gives it more loft, thickness, and richness. It becomes a pudding to be taken seriously. I once used whole cream, which was an entertaining experiment, but not one I think I will repeat. It was very good, but also very rich, on the level of pot de creme. I ended up having to parcel it out into teeny tiny little pudding cups because you could really only eat a few bites before you keeled over from the richness and the sheer level of intensity. But it was good. Oh, it was good. Let me assure you of its deliciousness. If you are a fan of very dense, very rich foods, you should give it a shot.
I also add grated chocolate, which is optional according to the recipe, although I think it’s a fantastic idea. It also gives you a lot of room to play with the recipe. You can do a straight up square of baking chocolate but I also sometimes add chocolate chips or interesting chocolate bars, cutting down on the sugar a bit so things don’t rear up and get too sweet on me. It’s a delicate balance. You can also toss in other things like cayenne or cinnamon or what have you, if you are into that sort of thing. I recommend whisking them in at the early stage with the cocoa and sugar to make sure they fully integrate and you don’t end up with, say, big fat clots which will burst open unpleasantly when you hit them. In addition to being rather shocking flavourwise, they are also immensely disappointing texturally[1. Not that I have done this, you understand, I am just saying that this is a potential pudding risk you should consider before adding bits in willy-nilly.].
Although we never covered pudding when I was a kid, I like to do it. If you tamp down some plastic or parchment paper or whatever you have lying around, it prevents a skin from forming, and, people, I have to confess, I do not like pudding skins. I know that there are some people who do and I wish them all the best, truly, may all their puddings be thick and ample of skin, but I do not like pudding skin. There is a fascinating biology reason why the skin forms and it has something to do with proteins and stuff but I have forgotten what it is. The short version is that if the pudding is covered with something pressing down into the top to keep air out, a skin does not form, and those of us who prefer our pudding sans skin can be happy campers.
Pudding toppings are, I understand, a bit controversial. Sometimes I like to toss a little whipped cream and/or shaved chocolate on there, sometimes I do not. It’s really a case by case situation. I could see a raspberry or caramel syrup also being potentially interesting, and let me tell you, if you are a vanilla pudding consumer, maple syrup is a surprising and delicious topping you may want to consider.