Comfort food is all the rage. Even as world-renowned chefs create foams and emulsions, use tweezers to garnish with microgreens, and push the boundaries of flavors and ingredients, the rest of us are craving food from the good old days.
Cookbook authors are getting in on the comfort food trend. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni has just come out with a book devoted entirely to meatloaf. Written with Jennifer Steinhauer, “A Meatloaf in Every Oven,” brings together recipes from celebrities and family members across the country and around the world. Ina Garten’s latest book, “Cooking for Jeffrey,” is about her husband’s favorite dishes. Mac and cheese, barbecue, pot roast, even the lowly grilled cheese sandwich are all enjoying the limelight right now.
Among the most comforting, though, is homemade pudding. It stirs childhood memories of a silky smooth, richly flavored treat. Boxed brands and school cafeterias gave pudding a bad rap, but when you have some that is scratch made and luxurious with egg yolks, you’ll know why pudding is in the comfort food hall of fame.
Pudding is surprisingly easy to make and draws two universal reactions: Wow! This is delicious! and, Really? You made this from scratch? I’m telling you, it’s no big trick. Pudding is easily made with stuff you have around the house anyway. After the first spoonful, the compliments and the admiration come flowing in.
With a little practice, pudding can be quickly put together. It’s a little more trouble than you would want for an everyday dessert, but dead easy for even the most modest occasion.
The hardest part, and it’s not all that hard, is tempering the eggs. Pudding that impresses gets its luxurious texture from the thickening magic of egg yolks. The yolks need to be tempered by slowly adding a little of the hot pudding to the beaten yolks, so that they gradually warm up, blend in, and don’t get scrambled. Once you’ve mastered tempering, pudding is a snap.
Chocolate pudding is my fave. Dark and glossy with chocolaty goodness and that famous texture, it can only be improved with a dollop of whipped cream. The better the chocolate, the better the pudding. Otherwise, it’s milk, sugar, cornstarch, and those marvelous eggs. My favorite recipe includes some cocoa powder, chocolate chips, and a splash of vanilla.
Butterscotch, the other universal pudding flavor, is not so straightforward. I need to take a minute here to define terms. Butterscotch is made by combining brown sugar and butter. It doesn’t have anything to do with Scotch whiskey, although a couple tablespoons of Highland Malt can improve almost anything. Butterscotch is not the same as caramel. Caramel is made with white sugar that is cooked to a dark color and slightly burned flavor – caramelization. Yummy, but not butterscotch.
Having cleared that up, I’ll admit that some butterscotch puddings call for caramelizing the brown sugar, and it can be pretty tasty. Butterscotch pudding is made much like the chocolate: butter, brown sugar, cornstarch, `and eggs are the building blocks. Some recipes opt for a caramel flavor by cooking the butter and sugar until it bubbles up and darkens. You have to be careful; the brown sugar burns more easily than white. I tried a recipe from Thekitchn.com and it was delicious.
Beyond chocolate and butterscotch, the flavor options are limitless. You can add peanut butter or Nutella, make salted caramel, add banana, include the ubiquitous pumpkin spice combo, go with a straight vanilla, or add cinnamon. Almost anything goes.
Bread pudding is not a cornstarch and egg pudding. It’s really a baked custard. But, because of its name, popularity, and solid comfort food credentials, I’m including it here. Bread pudding doesn’t thicken with cornstarch like a true pudding. The custard is thickened with eggs alone and baking.
There are infinite variations for bread pudding. Some have a smooth texture like a baked french toast. Others have distinct chunks of bread in the custard mix. The type of bread used runs the gamut – everything from Wonder Bread, to a crusty french loaf, or slightly stale sweet rolls. The common flavor thread is cinnamon. Sometimes you’ll find dried fruit, nutmeg, or a splash of liquor. There’s lots of opportunity for creativity! Served warm with some whipped cream or maybe a drizzle of caramel sauce, it may be the ultimate comfort food.
After arduous research a few years back, I settled on a basic bread pudding recipe. It was hard work – all that testing and tasting – and involved some sacrifice of my waistline. But after considering the questions of milk or cream, how many eggs, what type of bread, and the proper spicing, the recipe was finalized. Look for it at FranksFeast.com .
Chocolate, Butterscotch, or any other flavor, pudding from scratch is worth the effort. Moderate exertion yields great reward. You’ll want to add it to your standard repertoire!