By Wolfgang Puck, Tribune Content Agency
In many parts of the country, we’re just a few weeks away from school letting out for summer. The season itself less than six weeks away, and we’re only a week and a half from Memorial Day weekend, which many people consider the unofficial start of summer. So it’s not surprising that many parents (as well as people who may have no kids at home but still like to pamper their inner children) are starting to think about fun cooking activities making warm-weather treats. One of my favorites has always been old-fashioned, cornstarch-thickened pudding, dating back to when my mother and grandmother prepared it for me and my siblings during my childhood in Austria.
I used the word “old-fashioned,” but I also know that puddings thickened this way are actually a relatively recent invention. The oldest puddings known were custard mixtures thickened with egg yolks. But in the 1830s, an Englishman named Andrew Bird first began selling a custard powder based on cornstarch, which he originally developed for his wife, who had an egg allergy. The product caught on, with such packaged pudding mixtures eventually becoming common worldwide.
In fact, today most people think of pudding as something based on a mix that comes in a small, colorful cardboard box. But it’s just as easy to make it from scratch, and you get better results because you have full control over what you put into it.
You’ll see what I mean when you prepare the recipe for Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding. It’s a simple mixture of milk, sugar, cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, plus a touch of butter for extra richness, hints of vanilla, just a little salt to enhance the taste and, of course, cornstarch to thicken it. Use your favorite good-quality chocolate and cocoa; you’ll get results that transform and concentrate the flavor you love into a perfectly smooth, creamy dessert.
It’s so easy. And children can join in, too, with adult supervision while working with heat. For the best results, the only step that calls for particular care is streaming the dry ingredients slowly into the liquid while stirring steadily, which prevents lumps from forming.
Only a few hours of refrigeration sets the pudding to a perfectly creamy, cool consistency. I like to cover the surface of each serving with a piece of plastic wrap, which prevents the formation of a chewy “skin” on the pudding as it cools. But then again, some people fondly remember the pudding’s skin as one of their favorite little treats to eat. Such are the pleasures of childhood, no matter how old you may be.
Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding
Serves 6 to 8
3 cups (750 mL) milk
1/2 cup (125 mL) sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4 tablespoons cornstarch
6 ounces (185 g) bittersweet chocolate chips
1 ounce (30 g) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly whipped cream, for serving
Pitted fresh cherries or good-quality maraschino cherries, for serving
Pour the milk into a heavy metal saucepan. Stir in half of the sugar using a wire whisk. Put the pan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from the heat.
Put the remaining sugar, cocoa powder and cornstarch into a medium-sized bowl. Use a clean, dry whisk to stir them together until thoroughly combined. While whisking the hot milk mixture continuously, gradually pour in the sugar-cocoa-cornstarch mixture in a slow, steady stream.
Return the saucepan to medium heat and clip a thermometer to the side of the pan, with its tip immersed in the mixture. Continue cooking, stirring continuously with the whisk and taking care to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan until the mixture has thickened to a consistency resembling molten jelly and reached a temperature of about 200 F. (93 C), about 4 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat. Immediately whisk in the chocolate chips, butter, vanilla and salt, until the chocolate and butter have completely melted and are fully, incorporated.
Pour the hot mixture into individual serving glasses or bowls. Cover each with a piece of plastic wrap, gently pressing the plastic directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming as it cools. Refrigerate until well chilled, at least two hours. Serve within three days, removing the plastic wrap and topping each serving with whipped cream and cherries.