When you think of controversial words in the foodie lexicon, pudding probably isn’t one of them. Foie gras and trans fat? Sure. Pudding? Not so much.
But in my circle of friends, the term sparked a postprandial debate that – I think we all can agree –probably lasted too long. It all started one night when my South African friend Richard hosted a dinner party for a group of us, a mix of Americans, Brits, South Africans and continental Europeans.
As we finished our meal and began clearing the plates, Richard waved us back in our chairs. “Don’t get up, there’s pudding!”
Now, the visual image that immediately popped into my mind was a bowl of thick, creamy, custard-like deliciousness – the kind of thing that would put a big, fat grin on Bill Cosby’s face.
This was not to be.
Out came Richard with a pint of ice cream and a bowl of fruit. What was this? Was he hoping the ice cream would melt…and turn into pudding?
Almost in unison, all of the Americans at the table said, “I thought you said we were having pudding?”
The non-Americans looked confused. “We are. Here it is.” They went on to explain that in the countries where they were raised, pudding refers to any sweet concoction that follows a meal.
After much heated debate, we decided to put the issue to rest by agreeing to disagree: the Americans held strong to their custard-like notions of pudding, and the international contingent stood by their contention that pudding is merely a synonym for dessert.
Well, it turns out we were both right…and we were both wrong.
(Nerd alert: In a totally nerdy frenzy, I decided to look into the history of pudding… Scroll to the bottom if you want to skip the mini history lesson…)
After doing a little research on the subject, I found that the world’s first puddings were really more like sausages (the word pudding itself is derived from the Latin word for sausage) and were savory, not sweet. Even Medieval puddings were mostly meat-based.
Somewhere around the 17th century, sweet puddings entered the picture along side savory ones, consisting mostly of flour, nuts and sugar boiled in special “pudding bags.” By the late 18th century, cooks had phased out savory puddings, and by the 19th century puddings began to resemble cake, although they were still boiled.
So when did what we Americans call “pudding”begin to resemble custard, a separate European phenomenon with a similarly lengthy history?
I couldn’t find a very clear answer for this, but it looks like the two separate histories became sort of jumbled in the mid-19th century. At that time, an English chemist named Alfred Bird developed “custard powder,” a derivative of cornstarch, which allowed cooks to thicken foods – especially custards – with something other than eggs. Americans went crazy for it.
So at the turn of the century, food companies latched onto the custard powder/cornstarch phenomenon and started promoting custards and puddings as health foods, and it looks like that’s where pudding and custard converged. Jell-o and Royal started marketing “quick” custards and puddings for their health benefits (funny to think of chocolate pudding as health food, eh?), and the modern American pudding industry was born. By the 1930s you could get pudding mixes at almost any grocery store.
The British phenomenon of calling any dessert a “pudding” probably stems from the 18th or 19th century and at this point has just become a colloquialism.
Bottom line? The history of pudding is convoluted, and you can get away with calling a host of things by that name – some sticky, some figgy, others made with bread or rice. And as long as it tastes good, what’s in a name, anyway?
But all this pudding talk stirred up a craving for what I have called pudding all my life. And whether you’re American, British, South African, French or any other nationality, I think you’ll agree this recipe is delicious.
Adapted from various recipes in my collection
2 cups milk (whole or low-fat, do not use skim)
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces chocolate, chopped (preferably bittersweet, but semisweet would work)
2 teaspoons vanilla
Place 1 ½ cups of the milk and all of the sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil.
While the milk and sugar are heating up, combine the remaining ½ cup milk, cornstarch and salt in a medium bowl, whisking well to make sure there are no lumps. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Once the milk and sugar comes to a boil, turn down the heat and ladle about a ½ cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking. Pour the egg/milk mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens and just begins to boil, whisking constantly. Be careful not to cook this mixture too long, or it will curdle.
Once the pudding thickens, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the vanilla and chocolate, stirring until the chocolate has melted completely and the mixture is uniform. Pour the pudding into six ramekins, about a ½ cup pudding per ramekin. Or, simply pour all of the pudding into a big bowl. Cover with plastic wrap (pressing the plastic wrap on the surface if you don’t want a “skin,” or loosely covering the ramekin/bowl if you do want a skin). Chill at least 4 hours. Serve with whipped cream if desired.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Note: Some recipes call for adding about 2 tablespoons of butter at the end. I do this with vanilla and butterscotch puddings, but I tend to leave it out when I make chocolate pudding.
(Also, I’m not a food historian, so if you want more information on the history of pudding, the Oxford Companion to Food and the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink are great resources. Foodtimeline.org also has great info.)