There was a time in my life when I made a stand for custard over pudding.
Puddings, I decided, were temperamental things, rife with the potential for curdled eggs, grittiness from too much cornstarch or a soupy texture.
Custards, like French pots de creme or Italian budini, were more sophisticated and reliable. They can be baked slowly in a water bath so the eggs don’t curdle, and emerge silky and dense without any cornstarch to grit things up.
After years of persistent custard-making, though, it occurred to me that, by banishing pudding, I was missing out on pudding skin. And as the pandemic wore on and my appetite for creamy comfort food grew, a batch of old-fashioned butterscotch pudding — covered with a sticky, stretchy skin — was just what I was craving.
Custards can form skins, too, a result of heating the milk. But puddings, which need to be cooked uncovered at a higher temperature, can grow thicker skins. And these are much more satisfying to a pudding- skin lover like myself.
(A note to skin haters: You can prevent one from forming by pressing a piece of parchment or plastic wrap directly onto the pudding or custard surface as it cools.)
As for the temperamental nature of cornstarch puddings, there are ways to keep the pitfalls at bay.
The first is to activate the cornstarch by making sure to bring the pudding mixture to a full, bubble-popping boil. The second is to let the pudding cook, stirring, until it thickens enough to mound on the spoon before you take it off the heat. This ensures that it will set properly.
All this boiling does increase the risk of curdling the egg yolks. The easiest fix is to simply strain the mixture after cooking; any coagulated bits of egg will be left in the sieve.
And using a ratio of 1 tablespoon cornstarch for every cup of milk or cream keeps things smooth and free of grit.
The flavor of butterscotch pudding comes from dark brown sugar that’s been caramelized in butter and rounded out with vanilla. I also like to spike the mixture with a little bourbon for depth, but you could also tip in Scotch for a savory smokiness, and as a nod to the name.
With or without the booze, a bowl of homemade butterscotch pudding is about as soothing as dessert gets, a sweet, creamy comfort to any pandemic-weary soul.
Old-Fashioned Butterscotch Pudding
- 4 large egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3/4 packed cup (165 grams) dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon bourbon or Scotch whisky (optional)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Whipped cream, sour cream or creme fraiche, for serving
- Chopped candied ginger, sliced almonds, coarse sugar, shaved chocolate, cocoa nibs or flaky sea salt (or a combination), for garnish (optional)
Put egg yolks, cornstarch and salt into a large heatproof bowl, and whisk until mixture is smooth and there are no lumps.
In a medium pot over medium heat, combine brown sugar and butter, whisking, until brown sugar melts, 1 to 2 minutes. Let cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture starts to smell like hot caramel and darkens slightly, about 1 minute longer. (Don’t walk away, or the mixture may burn.)
Immediately pour milk and cream into the pot. (It will bubble fiercely and seize up.) Continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the clumps melt, 2 to 4 minutes.
Slowly whisk about 1/2 cup of the hot cream mixture into the bowl with the egg yolks, whisking yolks until smooth, then whisk in the remaining hot cream mixture. This tempering process heats the eggs slowly so they don’t cook. Pour the egg-cream mixture back into the saucepan over medium heat.
Cook pudding, whisking constantly, especially around bottom and edges of the pot, until it comes to a full boil. (Don’t worry about the eggs curdling. You’ll strain the mixture later.) Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens enough to mound thickly on a spoon, 4 to 7 minutes. If at any point the pudding looks lumpy, whisk to help smooth it out.
Strain mixture through a fine sieve into a heatproof container or bowl, then stir in Scotch or bourbon, if using, and vanilla. To prevent a skin from forming, press plastic wrap directly onto surface of the pudding. (If you like skin, don’t cover pudding until it cools.) Chill at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.
Spoon pudding into dishes. Top with whipped cream, sour cream or creme fraiche, and any of the optional garnishes. Serves 4.
Nutritional information unavailable.