Winter Puddings

Photo by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I made tapioca pudding for the first time. It was the instant kind out of a red and white box. I was pretty proud. My older sisters let me know right away that I’d used way too much salt, but I ate it anyway. I couldn’t believe that just a few ingredients cooked together for a short time could produce such a creamy, velvety dessert.

I’d like to say that I found my calling that day and never looked back, but that wouldn’t be the truth. In fact, it would be many years before I would even consider cooking and baking for a living. On second thought, maybe something did happen that day: Creamy custard desserts have always been some of my favorites. Or that could be the result of growing up in New England, where there has always been a rich history of pudding making.

Speaking of history, let’s delve in a little. What Americans now call pudding actually started out as something quite different. The term pudding was used as early as the 1300s and generally referred to a boiled sausage-like preparation. During this time, the word poding was used in Middle English (meaning “a kind of sausage”) or boudin from the Old French (“blood sausage” or “black pudding”). Medieval puddings were still mostly meat-based. By the 17th century, the English were serving boiled puddings that were either savory (meat based) or sweet (flour, nuts and sugar). 19th century puddings were still boiled, but the finished products were more like cake. A classic example? Plum (or Christmas) Pudding.

What we think of today as pudding is more closely related to custard, which has a long, parallel history to that of pudding. Cooks in ancient Rome used eggs for their binding properties and created several egg-based dishes including patinae, crustades and omelets. But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that sweet custards started to really make the scene both in Europe and Asia. At that time, custards were eaten alone or used as fillings for pies, tarts and pastries. By the 1840s, Alfred Bird, an English chemist, introduced custard powder, an alternative to thickening with eggs. Before long, Americans began using it as a thickener for custard-type desserts.

Fast forward to present day and what we may term pudding can encompass many creamy desserts. This can include flan, custard, crème brulée, crème caramel, blancmange or Bavarian cream. The list goes on and on. But the recipes here are what I consider puddings in their true sense and what most of us might think of when we think of pudding: rich, creamy confections served hot, warm or cold. Unfortunately, next to rolling out a piecrust, making pudding is one of the most common fears about baking. They are really not difficult to make. One of the biggest secrets is to use a gentle cooking process, either by using a low oven temperature or a water bath, or both. So fear not! Especially in these winter months, a little effort and understanding can pay off with a rich, hearty and satisfying dessert.


This story appeared in the Winter 2017 issue.