If given the choice as a child (which happened rarely with my health-nut parents), I always chose chocolate pudding over butterscotch. I’m just that kinda gal, I guess. Or at least I was. It wasn’t until I worked at Farallon for a stint under the brilliant Terri Wu that I got bitten by the butterscotch bug.
One night, while I raced to finish my enormous prep list, Terri calmly worked beside me developing a caramelized bread pudding into which she stuffed chunks of roasted pear and Maraska-poached sour cherries and topped with cinnamon streusel. Batch after batch, Terri kept declaring the puddings ‘bland’. At the time, I couldn’t fathom how they could become any more flavorful, bursting as they were with myriad tastes and textures.
But then into one batch Terri threw a handful of Guittard butterscotch chips. She pulled the puddings from the oven and turned them out of their silicon molds and onto a plate. As we broke apart the large chunks of custard-soaked bread, the aroma of brown sugar and butter wafted irresistibly throughout the pastry kitchen. A bite of this dessert was heaven on a fork, the different components merging together in a symphony of flavors. Seeing my rapturous expression, Terri sighed. ‘Put butterscotch in anything and people will love it.’
When I left Farallon, I couldn’t find Guittard’s butterscotch chips anywhere, and I needed a fix. David Lebovitz’s butterscotch pudding sparked my curiosity. No store-bought butterscotch here, David makes his pudding with butter, dark brown Cassonade sugar, salt, egg, cornstarch and milk. I whipped up a batch using some palm sugar my friend Leigh brought back from Indonesia, but disliked that the coffee notes in the sugar gave the pudding an odd tang. Perhaps because of the acidity of the sugar, the pudding ‘broke’; I blended it back together at David L’s suggestion, but the chilled puddings retained an uneven texture, with molasses-colored liquid oozing from the solid pudding. I also found the puddings a bit too light in texture for me, being the spoiled-on-french-custards-full-of-cream-and-egg-yolks baker that I am, and while Jay jokes about getting me a salt lick due to my predilection for the stuff, this pudding tasted a bit heavy even for my taste.
I did some more research and found scads of different recipes. Some used only egg yolks as a thickener, some only cornstarch, some used both, and some used eggs, cornstarch and flour together. Some added in crème fraîche or greek yogurt to the finished pudding. Most used a combination of milk and heavy cream, and all called for dark brown sugar melted with butter. I tried a few batches using both whole egg and cornstarch, but I kept ending up with a grainy texture and wondered if this was due to the egg. The cornstarch must be cooked to a boil and beyond, and the egg, which usually shouldn’t be heated past 170º when making a smooth custard lest it scramble, must go along for the ride, so I decided to try the cornstarch-only route. I also wondered if whisking the butter in at the end, rather than at the beginning, might lend a smoother texture and help cool down the pudding a bit sooner. (This is also called ‘mounting the butter’ and that’s just hot.) Since I can’t get enough of vanilla bean, I decided to use the fresh stuff in place of the extract, and I wanted some salt to bring out the flavors in the pudding, but not too much.
An article from Gourmet that I found via The Kitchn used a mixture of milk and heavy cream, cornstarch as the thickener, and added the butter at the end, but there was some talk in the comments of it not setting properly and becoming ‘pudding soup’, so I decided to develop my own formula instead. It couldn’t be that hard, could it? Five batches later, certain after each that the next little tweak would make it perfect, I realized that I was closing in on the proportions in the Gourmet recipe, so I finally gave it a shot, adding salt and using vanilla bean in place of the extract. Of course, it was perfect: butterscotch heaven. I topped the puddings with unsweetened whipped cream and a sprinkle of flaky salt, and called it a day. (Right after I made another batch, you know, just to make sure it was really ‘the one.’)
This dessert comes together in a matter of minutes (plus some chilling time, if you can stop yourself from licking it all straight from the pot), and uses ingredients commonly found laying about in one’s pantry, doing nothing, waiting to become something divine. The rich butter and deep brown sugar convey the classic flavor reminiscent of those little plastic, foil-topped containers of yore (should you have been so lucky). Unlike the real thing, however, these will actually live up to those exalted memories.
Even after nine batches of butterscotch pudding (hey, I had to get it just right – I did it for you!), I’m already looking forward to the next. I guess I’m just that kinda gal.
Adapted from Gourmet
You can (probably) use half and half in place of the milk and cream if you like. (Update, 1/21/12: half and half works, but has a higher fat content than the milk/cream mixture and results in a firmer, less creamy pudding. Try reducing the cornstarch to 2 tablespoons, and/or omitting the butter.) My favorite sugar for this was organic dark brown sugar; if you only have light brown sugar on hand, you can try whisking in a few drops of molasses to taste along with the butter at the end. Or try experimenting with more exotic sugars, such as panela, palm sugar, muscovado, or Alter Eco’s unrefined muscobado sugar. If boozy butterscotch sounds appealing, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of whiskey or dark or gold rum after adding the butter. If you lack vanilla bean (which you can buy in bulk in the Mission, or order), stir in a teaspoon of vanilla extract after adding the butter at the end.
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup (3 3/4 ounces) packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, in several pieces
unsweetened whipped cream
flaky salt, such as Maldon
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch, salt, and sugar. Add the milk, cream and vanilla bean and scrapings and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking frequently (you will have to stop whisking to verify that it is boiling; there will be fat bubbles that pop gloopily). While you whisk, make sure to scrape the entire bottom of the pot, including the corners. When you see the gloopy bubbles, reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a simmer and continue cooking for 1 minute. The pudding should be the texture of a loose yogurt, or warm caramel sauce. Turn off the heat and whisk in the butter.
Fish out the vanilla pod (or strain the pudding into a measuring pitcher if at all lumpy) and divide the pudding into 4 cups. (You can rinse the vanilla pod, let it dry, and stick it in a bottle of booze or a jar of sugar, if you like.)
Pudding skin is an area of some disagreement, with supporters of either side, pro-skin and anti-skin, debating their points heatedly. As for me, I just cover the cups with plastic wrap (not pressed onto the surface of the pudding) and mine haven’t formed much of a skin.
Chill the puddings until cold and set, 1 1/2 hours or up to several days. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a few flecks of flaky salt.