Hipster Kitchen, a new dining column chronicling the joys and travails of cooking outside the mainstream, will appear alternate Thursdays this semester.
There is something exquisitely nostalgic about pudding. Every American schoolchild is introduced at least once to one of those little plastic cups with the peel-off lid, underneath which lies a dollop of sugary, creamy sweetness. To think that something so sweet and rich could be labeled a mere snack! Preposterous! As kids, we took no time to think about where the pudding came from, focusing instead on where the pudding was going — namely, into our hungry bellies.
But now that we are ostensibly grown-ups, it’s time to take a little more initiative. True pudding, my friends, does not come from a plastic cup. Nor does it come from a box, though I do have fond memories of dipping my fingers in the leftover mix at the bottom of the packet and licking sweet powdered milk dust from my fingers as my mother stood at the stove, dutifully stirring, to keep our dessert from scalding. Pudding can and ought to be made from scratch, with ingredients that you probably have in your fridge and cupboards at this very moment, and I promise it’s worth it.
My do-it-yourself pudding is almost laughably easy, but this doesn’t mean it’s the kind of recipe you can complete without paying attention. Seasoned chefs and cooking novices alike need to stay alert throughout the process, otherwise the whole affair will devolve from creamy almost-custard to lumpy mess in a minute. Pudding requires focus and a steady stirring arm. Aside from the kind of patience that can sometimes be rare among busy and distractible college students, the process is simple enough — heat milk, add to a mixture of sugar (for sweetness), cornstarch (for thickness), egg (for richness), a bit of vanilla and a pinch of salt (for intensity and contrast of flavor). Let thicken, and voila!
You’ll discover that pudding is good at any time of day and for any reason. You can eat it hot, right out of the pan, as though it were shell-less pie filling, or you can chill it in the fridge overnight and wake up to the most insanely decadent breakfast you will ever taste. You can embellish it with fresh berries or a few curls of chocolate. Best of all, you can impress people with your kitchen cred: When they ask what brand of pudding you buy, just smile coyly and say, “Oh, this pudding? Authentic. Homemade. From scratch. It’s D.I.Y.”
DIY Vanilla Pudding
(adapted from a recipe by Smitten Kitchen)
2 and 2/3 cups milk, divided
½ cup sugar (white and brown are both acceptable; white sugar has a classically sweet taste while brown will give the finished pudding a richer, nuttier flavor)
¼ cup cornstarch
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla extract (You can play around with this as well. Almond extract is delicious, as is a splash of spiced rum, but try to keep the total flavoring at a volume of about 2 tsp.)
In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of milk to a boil. While the milk is heating, whisk together sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium-sized heatproof bowl. To this mixture, add 2/3 cup milk in a steady stream, whisking constantly to ensure that no lumps form, and one egg. Whisk until mixture is uniform.
When the milk on the stove is simmering, pour it slowly into the sugar/cornstarch mixture, whisking constantly. This is a step where you should be careful and attentive, as dumping boiling milk into this mixture could result in a kind of scrambled-egg-and-pudding combination, which … might be good, but probably not. Return mixture from the bowl to the saucepan and place back on the stove over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it simmers. This will take longer than you think it will, but suddenly the mixture will thicken and you will exclaim, “I am a real chef!” At this point, add two teaspoons of vanilla extract and stir to incorporate. Pour the mixture evenly into 4 bowls. If you want traditional pudding, allow it to chill in the fridge until set (about 2 hours); if you’re an impatient hedonist like me, go ahead and eat it while it’s still warm.