Smooth and sweet, pudding’s a treat

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Mmmmm, pudding. Creamy, sweet, and smooth. Soothing, simple, and easy to digest. No wonder pudding is often a child’s first dessert, or a sweet offering when we’re ill. Often it’s the first thing a child learns to cook.

Puddings are soft desserts usually boiled, baked, or steamed. They are often made with milk, a thickener, egg, tapioca or cornstarch, and flavorings like vanilla, chocolate, and butterscotch. Rice, corn, and coconut are a few of the ingredients added to enhance the simple and make it sublime.

Dessert pudding can come from a box, or a plastic container in the refrigerator section of the market. However, like most things, when deconstructed to its ingredient list of sugar, cornstarch, and flavorings, it really is quite easy to make from scratch and is just a matter of using correct proportions. Homemade also can be more healthy.

Like many dishes that use heat and a thickener, this pot has to be watched. Thirty seconds and 5 degrees can make the difference between a creamy concoction or something resembling cement. Pudding thickens as it cools, so be careful not to overcook.

Rice pudding, which can send one swooning back to childhood, is little more than rice, milk, and sometimes eggs. Do you like yours with or without raisins? Soft or really firm? Most cultures have their own dessert pudding, with the same tug of nostalgia. Raj Verma, 27, comes from the Punjab region in northern India. He serves kheer, the aromatic Indian rice pudding, at his restaurant, Bollywood, on Massachusetts Avenue in East Lexington. It is the most popular dessert on the menu and Verma gives everyone a taste even if they don’t order it. Basmati rice, whole milk, cardamom, and a dash of rose water makes this pudding delightfully different.

”We had a few cows on our land and we would get the milk fresh, warm, and thicker than what you have here,” Verma recalled. ”Kheer was served very cold to give us some relief from the heat of the day as well as the heat of the food. When we had scratchy throats or colds, my mom served this to us.”

Mention tapioca (from the root of the cassava plant) and some people will search for Fido, ready to slip him a bowl of those translucent ”fish eyes” under the table. Tapioca can be the base for desserts, a thickener for pies. Like tofu, it absorbs the flavors it is mixed with. Also like tofu, you have to be a fan of the slippery consistency. Elsa Tian emigrated from Indonesia 36 years ago and remembers tapioca puddings made with coconut milk.

”We had the tapioca pudding at tea time served at room temperature,” she said. ”They used to soak the tapioca pearls overnight to soften before cooking.” Tian still makes the dessert, but finds the quick-cooking tapioca in the box perfectly acceptable.

Stores that carry Asian foods often carry the tapioca pearls in bags. About half the recipes researched recently called for soaking the pearls overnight. The soaked tapioca is then cooked in water until translucent and takes much less time to get to this stage.

Pudding as a snack adds some calcium to your diet. Served in a footed cup, it is an easy but elegant finish to a dinner party, or a cooling end to a spicy meal. It’s made all the more special with a garnish of whipped cream, chocolate shavings, or a sprinkling of pistachios. Serve with a crispy wafer-like cookie and dessert is done.

Old-fashioned chocolate pudding

These recipes use whole milk as it gives a richer flavor. You can substitute low fat milk

2 cups whole milk or 1 cup milk and 1 cup half and half
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Mix cornstarch, sugar, cocoa and salt together in a bowl.
2. Pour milk into a pot over medium heat. Add cocoa mixture and stir constantly until bubbles appear around the edge.
3. Lower heat to a simmer and stir pudding until thick. Add vanilla.
4. Pour into four dishes. Chill and serve with whipped cream and chocolate shavings or jimmies.

For butterscotch pudding, omit chocolate and substitute brown sugar for white sugar. Add 2 tablespoons butter and the vanilla after pot has been removed from heat.

For vanilla: Omit chocolate and add vanilla after pot has been removed from heat.

Kheer: Indian rice pudding

1 cup basmati rice
2 cups water
8 cups milk (whole milk gives creamiest results)
1/2 cup heavy cream
2-3 green cardamom pods, seeds only
3/4 cup sugar
chopped pistachios for garnish
a few drops rose water (optional)

1. Cook rice in water until done.
2. Heat milk until it boils. Turn to medium heat.
3. Break open green cardamom pods and remove the seeds.
4. Add cooked rice, cream, sugar, and cardamom seeds to hot milk.
5. Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture thickens to the consistency of thick soup, about 5-8 minutes.
6. Serve in individual bowls. Garnish with chopped, unsalted, green pistachios. A drop or two of rosewater is traditional and adds fragrance and flavor.

Adapted from Raj Verma’s Bollywood Cafe recipe

Indonesian mango strawberry tapioca pearl dessert

1/3 cup pureed mango
1/3 cup pureed strawberry
3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
1/3 cup sugar
21/2 cups water (or 1 cup milk and 11/2 cups coconut milk)

1. Place tapioca, water, and sugar in a pot and let stand for 5 minutes.
2. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a full boil. Remove from heat.
3. Divide into two mixing bowls. Let cool for 10 minutes.
4. Add the strawberry puree to one bowl and the mango puree to the other. Mix well.
5. Put a layer of mango tapioca in each of four bowls. Top with a layer of strawberry tapioca.
6. Serve with a dollop of coconut cream (the coconut cream is the thick layer on top of the coconut milk when you open the can).

Adapted from Martin Yan’s Asia, Rainbow Tapioca

Tembleque: Puerto Rican coconut pudding

1 cup milk
1 cup half and half
2 cups sweetened coconut shreds
1-11/2 cups coconut milk
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

1. Heat milk and half and half until bubbles just begin to form. Remove from heat.
2. Add coconut and let sit for 15 minutes.
3. Place milk and coconut mixture in blender or food processor and pulse for 30 seconds.
4. Place a strainer over a bowl and pour mixture into the strainer. Press on remaining coconut to release as much liquid as possible.
5. Measure strained liquid into a pot; add coconut milk and heat on medium.
6. Dissolve the cornstarch in one-third cup milk and whisk into hot mixture.
7. Add salt and stir until mixture thickens. Lower heat and stir an additional five minutes. Turn off heat and add cinnamon if desired.
8. Divide among four bowls and garnish with toasted coconut (made by placing three tablespoons shredded coconut in a dry frying pan and heating just until coconut turns brown.)

Adapted from ”How to Cook Everything”
by Mark Bittman

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