Milk and cream aren't just redoubtable foods in their own right, they're also unusually good vehicles for rich flavors such as chocolate, caramel and vanilla. Ice cream and chocolate milk are two fine examples of this principle, and another is pudding. Served chilled rather than frozen, a pudding is simply a sweet, flavorful milk or cream mixture that's thickened to a silky, mouth-pleasing texture. There are several ways to do this, depending on your preferences.
Custards, or Egg-Thickened Puddings
Heat your milk and cream in a saucepan over low heat, or over a double boiler, as directed in your recipe.
Beat your eggs and extra egg yolks into the sugar, using a spoon rather than a whisk. You want the eggs thoroughly mixed with the sugar, but without the froth a whisk creates.
Pour one-quarter to one-third of the hot milk or cream into your egg mixture, in a thin stream. Stir constantly so the hot milk doesn't gather in a large enough pool to cook the eggs.
Pour the warmed or "tempered" egg mixture slowly into the main saucepan of hot milk or cream, again pouring in a thin stream and stirring constantly. Heat the custard gently over low heat or a double burner, stirring occasionally, until it thickens.
Remove the custard from your stovetop and stir in a small piece of butter and your vanilla. Pour it through a strainer, to remove any fine lumps of cooked egg, into a large bowl or individual serving dishes.
Heat your milk or cream over moderate heat on the stovetop, or in the top half of a double boiler. Keep back one-quarter to one-third of the total, leaving it cold.
Combine your recipe's sugar with a starch-based thickening agent, such as cornstarch, flour or arrowroot powder. Ordinary flour takes up to 20 minutes to completely thicken and lose its pasty, chalky flavor, so it's best to use quick-mixing or "instant" flour in puddings.
Whisk the cold portion of the milk into your starch-and-sugar mixture, until it's thoroughly dissolved. Then pour the cold mixture into your hot milk in a thin stream, whisking until it's fully incorporated.
Cook the pudding over low heat until it thickens completely. Remove it from the heat, and add any flavorings as needed.
Strain the hot pudding into a large bowl or individual serving cups, leaving any lumps in the strainer.
Puddings Set With Gelatin
Whisk your sugar together with the milk and cream, and bring it gently to a simmer on your stovetop.
Measure 3/4 teaspoon of unflavored gelatin powder for every cup of liquid in your pudding. That's enough to make it hold its shape, but the end result will have a delicate, melt-in-your-mouth texture rather than the rubbery mouth-feel of most gelatin desserts.
Stir the gelatin into two to three times its volume of cold water, and leave it to absorb water or "bloom" for three to five minutes. Melt the gelatin over a cup of hot water, or in 15-second increments in your microwave, until it's completely liquid.
Pour the melted gelatin into your pudding mixture in a fine stream, stirring steadily. Continue stirring for another 30 seconds, or until you're confident the gelatin is thoroughly diffused throughout the mixture; then remove your saucepan from the burner.
Strain the pudding into a single large mold or smaller individual serving dishes, to remove any stray lumps of undissolved gelatin or any "skin" that formed on the cream during cooking. Chill the pudding until it sets. Serve it either in the dish or unmolded and inverted, whichever is appropriate.