I intended to do a quick pudding post but, well, one thing led to another, and now I’ve done a mountain of research instead. The exploration began with a simple hankering for Caramel Pudding. I grabbed a standard formula from somewhere, went straight to the kitchen, and whipped it up in less than 10 minutes.
The only problem was that the end result had hardly any caramel flavor, even though I started with burnt sugar, and the texture was a little lumpy after chilling. In other words, not the perfect pudding I’m going to pass on to YOU.
So that fiasco got me pondering processes and proportions. And even though I am still hankering for Caramel Pudding, I am now more focused on understanding the underlying science, so that I can easily and successfully make any pudding flavor I want in the future.
I’m not considering chocolate here, however, as I did a ton of research and testing on that theme earlier. If you are interested in the best Chocolate Pudding in the known universe, see LunaCafe’s Ultimate Chocolate Pudding. As I referred back to my work there, I was reminded to perfect an easy to remember formula that can be expanded as necessary. Sometimes you want pudding for one and sometimes for six.
I was also reminded to adopt the easiest process possible to produce the desired result. It is rather astonishing to see how many ways fine cooks can think of to step through such a simple technique. Basically, all we are trying to do here is melt sugar in milk and then thicken it with cornstarch and egg yolk. The cornstarch should be introduced before the egg yolk, although simultaneously will also work. Without the cornstarch, we can’t bring the custard anywhere near a boil. In fact, if you want to use egg yolks alone to thicken your custard, the custard must not exceed 165°. Otherwise, the egg yolks will curdle. Cornstarch, on the other hand, begins to thicken at 203° and needs to go to 208° for full activation. Even a slow simmer is fine for the egg yolks though, as long as sufficient cornstarch is present.
Pudding is not a dessert fit for a queen–although if I were a queen (Swamp Boogie Queen!), I would insist on having it nearly every day. It’s supposed to be homey, comforting, quick, and EASY. It should be one of the first dishes a young cook learns to make at the stove (perhaps with a cool induction burner). Armed with this simple culinary building block, a world of desserts become possible—custard pie, ice cream, gelato, fresh fruit gratinee, mousse, Bavarian, soufflé, dessert sauce, chiffon pie, cake filling, parfait, verrine–you name it.
LunaCafe’s Ultimate Vanilla Pudding Tips and Tricks
- Although several methods were represented in the sampling of recipes I choose to explore, the one that works the best is also the simplest. I call it the Basic Pudding Method. It requires a small bowl, a saucepan, a whisk, and a silicon spatula. No whisking or blending is called for after the pudding has set and a strainer is rarely required. To save a step (separately liquefying the cornstarch), the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and milk are combined and brought slowly to a bare simmer. The egg yolks mixed with a bit of milk are added after tempering to the thickened pudding, and the pudding is NOT brought back to a rolling boil, which helps to ensure that the egg yolks will not curdle.
- Heat kills enzymes in raw egg yolks, which will otherwise break down the starch bonds and thin the custard. Pudding must be brought to just under a simmer (208º) after adding the egg yolks. I like to maintain that temperature for a minute or longer to be on the safe side.
- Use moderate heat, a heavy bottomed saucepan, and a silicon spatula.
- Stir pudding constantly with a silicon spatula, making sure to get into every corner.
- To protect the egg yolks from too sudden heating, whisk them together with a portion of the recipes milk measurement BEFORE you actually add some of the hot pudding to temper them.
- I notice a perceptible “grit” when I use egg white in custard, thus I prefer egg yolks only.
Most puddings are too thick to strain through a fine mesh strainer, regardless of what the recipe says. If you have a single mesh strainer, you might try that. If you follow the directions below carefully, however, no straining will be necessary.
- I encountered a couple of recipes in which an immersion blender or processor is used to whip the pudding after thickening. From a food chemistry point of view, whipping the pudding after thickening should break the gel. Plus, what a mess. The texture of my pudding is so smooth and silky, I see no point in actually trying this.
- I encountered one method, attributed to Pierre Hermé, in which, in a processor, the room temperature butter is added to somewhat cooled pudding (140°) and processed for 3 entire minutes to form an emulsion. I haven’t tried this yet because it really adds to the mess in the kitchen, but most importantly because the pudding is so amazingly smooth, light, and luscious, I can’t imagine it being any better. (If you do a comparison, do let me know your thoughts.)
Classifying Stove-Top Custards
As long as we are considering pudding, we may as well fit it into the hierarchy of stove-top custards. For instance, what’s the difference between Custard Sauce (Crème Anglaise), Custard Pudding, Custard Pie Filling, and Custard Filling (Crème Pâtissière)?
First of all, each of these custard derivations is prepared on the stove-top, rather than in the oven. The stove-top method gives these custards a particularly silky texture and luscious, voluminous mouth feel.
The most significant difference between these custards is their degree of thickness. They can each be made more or less rich by increasing or decreasing the proportion of egg yolks and other fat (cream for a portion of the milk and optional inclusion of butter). So from thinnest to thickest, here they are:
Custard Sauce (Crème Anglaise) Custard Sauce is a simple mixture of egg yolks, sugar, and milk, brought to just 165° on the stove-top. You may find recipes that specify a tiny amount of cornstarch in addition, but this is only a safeguard to help prevent the egg yolks from curdling. The tiny amount used does not alter the somewhat thickened but still flowing consistency of the sauce.
With additional egg yolks and heavy cream for a portion of the milk, this sauce is the time-honored base for the smoothest, silkiest ice creams.
Custard Pudding Custard Pudding is similar to Custard Pie Filling in ingredients and process, but it is not quite as thick. Typically, the proportion is 1 tablespoon of cornstarch per cup of milk.
Custard Pie Filling Custard Pie Filling is nearly the same as Custard Pudding. However, the cornstarch is often increased somewhat to allow the pie to cut cleanly without drooping on the plate. Typically, the proportion is 1½-2 tablespoons of cornstarch per cup of milk.
Custard Cream (Crème Pâtissière) In contrast to Custard Pie Filling, Custard Filling contains a significant amount of flour (rather than a lesser amount of cornstarch) and perhaps additional egg yolk as well. Because of the added starch, it can be brought to a boil without fear of curdling the egg yolks. Typically, the proportion is 5-6 tablespoons of flour per cup of milk.
Custard Filling is very thick and best utilized as a thin base for a fresh fruit tart; or, lightened with whipped egg whites, it can be used as a filling for cream puffs or in a layered dessert. To my palate, it is an abomination to use this filling in a dessert that should be light and voluminous, such as Coconut Cream Pie. But such things are done, even in otherwise fine restaurants.
And now that we have learned so much about stove-top custards, let’s have some pudding, shall we?
LunaCafe’s Ultimate Vanilla Pudding
If there is a more perfect vanilla pudding in the universe, I haven’t encountered it. Descriptors for this pudding include light, delicate, decadent, luscious, and perfectly creamy, with a voluminous mouth feel. This is, without a doubt, the best vanilla pudding I have ever eaten.
The set for this custard is intentionally soft. If you want the pudding to hold it’s shape on a plate or in a pie crust, double the cornstarch.
The formula is easy to remember: For every cup of milk, use 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1 egg yolk, and 1 tablespoon butter. With the addition of ½ teaspoon vanilla and ? teaspoon salt, you will have a perfect vanilla pudding.
Ingredient Note It isn’t required, but the inclusion of some cream makes for an exceptionally luscious pudding. I almost always include it.
3 large egg yolks
9 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoon cornstarch
3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 cups whole milk (or ¾ cup cream and 2¼ cups whole milk)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 12 chunks
1½ teaspoon vanilla (I love Mexican vanilla here)
lightly sweetened whipped cream, optional
- In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with ¼ cup of milk until well combined. Reserve.
- In a 3-quart saucepan, whisk together sugar, cornstarch, and salt, and then slowly whisk in the cold milk, a little at a time to ensure no lumps form. Scrape the bottom and sides of the saucepan with a silicon (heatproof) spatula.
- Over medium heat, stirring constantly, bring to a bare simmer.
- Ladle ½ cup of the hot pudding into the egg yolks and whisk rapidly. Repeat two times. Now add the egg yolk mixture back to the saucepan. This tempers the egg and helps to prevent curdling.
- Lower the heat to medium-low and continue stirring the pudding until it thickens to the point that it coats the back of the spatula, from 2-4 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla until the butter is melted.
- Immediately pour the pudding into a medium mixing bowl or 4-cup glass measuring cup. (If you think you may have lumps, pour the pudding through a single mesh strainer, using a plastic spatula to push the pudding through.) Alternatively, you can pour pudding directly into six ½-cup serving dishes. (The reason I rarely do this is because I prefer mounded servings.)
- Quickly press a small piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.
- Let cool, and then refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours.
- To serve, spoon pudding into six, ½-cup ramekins (if you didn’t do this earlier).
- Top each serving with a generous mound of whipped cream.
- Serve immediately.
Makes about 3 cups, or six ½-cup servings.
David Lebovitz Blog: Butterscotch Pudding Recipe
Deliciously Organic Blog: Banana Cream Tart (using Vanilla Pudding)
Dessert Stalking: Vanilla Pudding
Evil Shenanigans Blog: Southern Banana Pudding (using Vanilla Pudding)
How to Eat Pudding Mindfully
Joy of Baking Blog: Vanilla Pudding
Los Angeles Times: Eureka Butterscotch Pudding
Serious Eats: Butterscotch Pudding: Searching for the Perfect Recipe
TasteSpotting: Vanilla Pudding
Wayne Schmidt’s Vanilla Pudding Page