Pudding is one of those things that if you like to eat it, you should know how to make it. The home-cooked stuff couldn’t have less in common flavor-wise with that plastic-cupped horror show they brought me in the hospital post-baby. Real pudding takes only a little time to make, and if you do it my way (the old-school way, I like to think) there are no egg yolks or creams or custards or pats of butter. It practically runs on the treadmill for you, don’t you think?
So I made Batch 1: Vanilla Pudding. And it was tasty. But it didn’t hold my interest because I had already moved on, figuring that if you’re going to add sugar to something, why not caramelize it first? Why not get all of the flavor you can from a few simple ingredients?
[Sidebar: Caramel is dangerous in exactly this way; once you realize how easy it is to melted and toast regular old sugar in a saucepan and how much more transcendent it is than the granulated stuff from whence it came, you'll constantly question why you should ever use straight sugar in a recipe again. It's a similarly slippery slope learning about browned butter; you may go on a butter melt-and-toast bender. In other words: SEND HELP.]
So I caramelized the sugar and whoa, suddenly I had made caramel pudding. Intriguing! But Batch 2 was too sweet and Batch 3 wasn’t sweet enough and Batch 2 had been too stiff but Batch 3 was too thin and Batch 4 was the right amount of sweet but the sugar hadn’t caramelized enough and Batch 5, the one I was going to tell you about, flopped, likely because I was pudding-kaput. I was tired of pudding, out of milk and it was 21 blustery, brutal degrees out yesterday so just no, no way.
Batch 6 however, fulfilled its caramel pudding destiny, and thank goodness because I was this close to sending my flat whisk flying down the avenue below. This pudding isn’t so much sweet as well-rounded, with faint burnt sugar notes and toffee undertones while still maintaining its — and your — integrity: five kitchen staples, none particularly sinful. Go. Get on this. You are welcome.
Adapted heavily from Food & Wine
4 cups milk, whole or 2% (no, I haven’t tried skim, if you do, let us know how it goes)
6 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
In a small bowl, whisk 1/2 cup of the milk with the cornstarch, vanilla and salt until smooth. Set aside. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar with 6 tablespoons of water and bring to a boil. Cook over moderately high heat, undisturbed, until a deep amber caramel forms, about 8 minutes. Be patient but watch the stove like a hawk as caramel changes color quickly, and only burns when you think you are safe leave the room for a second. Remove from the heat. Very gradually whisk in the remaining 3 1/2 cups of milk. (This is another great place for your whisk for the corners.) As you begin whisking it in, the caramel will get very dark, and likely make you nervous that you’ve burnt it. Fear not; that there is your flavor base.
Return the pot to the stove and whisk over moderate heat until the caramel has dissolved again. Once again, watch this closely as the milk will foam up quickly as it comes to a simmer. Simmer over moderately low heat until the mixture thickens slightly and deepens in color, about 10 minutes.
Gradually whisk the cornstarch mixture into the caramel. Cook again over moderate heat, stirring, until the pudding thickens, about one minute. If you’re not lazy like me, strain the pudding fine strainer set over a large measuring cup; if you are, you can skip this and nothing terrible will happen. Scrape the pudding into eight 1/2-cup ramekins and refrigerate until chilled and set, about 2 hours.
To avoid a pudding skin if you, like everyone in the world but me, are pudding skin-averse: Press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface of each pudding dish as it chills.