Milk and cream aren't just redoubtable foods in their own right, they're also amazing vehicles for rich flavors like chocolate, caramel and vanilla. Ice cream and chocolate milk are two 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.
As a general rule, ingredients such as vanilla beans and whole spices are infused into the hot cream before you proceed with the recipe. Dry flavorings such as cocoa are typically mixed into the sugar; wet flavorings such as melted chocolate are stirred into the hot cream; flavor extracts are stirred in when the pudding is finished.
The ratio of whole eggs and egg yolks in a custard will vary, depending on your recipe. Extra yolks make a richer, softer custard, while whole eggs make it firmer. Puddings meant to be unmolded and served whole usually contain more whole eggs, or a secondary thickener.
Tapioca is handled differently than other starch thickeners, because in powdered form it tends to have an unpleasantly stringy texture when used for thickening. Instead it's sold in pearl form, creating distinctive balls of gelled pudding in the thickened milk or cream.
Preheating most of the milk or cream in a starch-thickened pudding is an optional step, and many recipes call for all the ingredients to be combined and heated together. The two-stage method is slightly quicker, and minimizes the risk of your pudding sticking and scorching during its thickening time.
Gelatin-thickened desserts are ideal for the carbo-phobic, or those with allergies to common starch thickeners such as wheat or corn. Traditional desserts such as panna cotta and Bavarian creams are generally thickened with gelatin.
Many recipes combine multiple thickeners. For example, a vanilla pudding recipe might incorporate egg yolks for richness, and a starch thickener for stability. If you're adding starch to an egg-thickened custard, keep the temperature of your mixture to a low simmer -- ideally below 180 degrees Fahrenheit -- to minimize the risk of cooking the eggs and "breaking" your custard. If you're adding gelatin to an egg-thickened custard, whisk the melted gelatin into the cream mixture before it's added to the eggs.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.