We really don’t eat much pudding. At least not the cornstarch variety that is in the older cookbooks. It isn’t on restaurant menus much any more unless as a mousse or pastry cream. Maybe in the South where Banana Pudding was made famous with the Nilla* Wafer cookies we might see it on a menu. But for the most part the ingredients are very simple for this a softly thickened sweet milk cold dessert.
Seems most pastry chefs never make pudding they make pastry creme. Pastry cream is a very egg yolk-y vanilla pudding. So about the same. When we were writing our version a southern favorite, banana vanilla pudding for our APRIL DINNER SHOW, we found ourselves wanting to perfect the vanilla pudding.
We started like the chef-sleuths at Cook’s Illustrated might, with our own pastry cream recipe since we know it best. We knew we wanted a rich pudding, and since pastry cream uses egg yolks exclusively, while pudding might use some whole eggs, we chose to use only yolks for the richness.
We also wanted to determine once and for all whether to use all milk (cornstarch pudding is almost always made with whole milk), or would we add a little cream, all cream, or half and half cream. One other ingredient that seems to be present pretty consistently is cornstarch, thus the old fashioned name “cornstarch pudding.” But even our pastry cream recipe includes some flour for thickener.
We first made our pudding with only cornstarch so that when/if we have a guest who cannot eat gluten, our recipe would still work. We simply were not sure until the first test whether we could convert the flour to an equal amount of cornstarch. We also were not sure if the flour also performed something other than thickening, but were willing to drop it and find out for ourselves.
Next we tackled the whole milk or part cream option. We decide the logically way is to make it with an equal amount of half and half. We liked it; still quite rich, but not heavy as all cream might be. It also still give us the option to fold in whipped cream to really light up the pudding if we wanted to.
Well in the end, our new recipe is probably not much different, but it is “vanilla” enough (no pun intended) that it will work for many different dessert variations; just like our original pastry cream recipe does.
THE PERFECT PUDDING
2 cups half and half
1/2 vanilla bean scraped into sugar or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste mixed into 1/2 cup granulated natural sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch (level but not packed)
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup more sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 to 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, optional
Method: Blend vanilla and 1/2 sugar and cornstarch in sauce pan. Add milk and bring to simmer over medium heat while stirring occasionally. Meantime, beat egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar; add small amount of the warm milk mixture to eggs to temper(warm them slowly) eggs a little, and then stir all egg mixture into warm milk whisking quickly. Bring mixture to almost boil while stirring; it will bubble but should not go to full boil ( not over 200ºF). Hold steady there for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter if using. Sieve through fine screen to remove any lumps. Pour out into stainless steel bowl or shallow non-reactive container Cover pudding with plastic film by resting film directly on the pudding surface; cool in the refrigerator. At service, spoon into dishes and serve. Or make one our our listed variations.
Service variations: Serve with whipped cream, Swiss meringue, or as a parfait layered with fruit and cream and graham crackers. Or spoon into individual bowls layered with vanilla wafers and bananas and for the famous southern dish that started this quest. See Banana Pudding Cups When making the south’s favorite banana pudding, after you have made the appropriate layers, they must sit in refrigerator for a minimum of four hours and even overnight. It just gets better when you let the flavors meld and soften the cookies.
Recipe Variations: Add 3 tablespoons rich bitter sweet cocoa powder to the sugar and finish with 2 teaspoons butter and 1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate pieces, stirring until melted. Cool and you have a rich chocolate pudding. Add 2 teaspoons espresso powder with the vanilla to make it espresso chocolate pudding.
*Chef’s Note: Ever wonder why the wafers from Nabisco are called “NILLA” and not VANILLA? Apparently they cannot because there isn’t any vanilla in the recipe; it is artificial.