Simplicity and nostalgia
by Laura Silber
At the diner around the corner from my grandparents’ Queens apartment, I hear the clink and clatter of silverware and coffee cups in the grey plastic bus tubs. I choose a chocolate pudding parfait topped with whipped cream from the revolving glass case, while my grandpa selects the rice pudding, his favorite. Grandma sips her tea and steals a single spoonful from each of our glasses. The chocolate is cold and smooth and wonderful, and I think pudding in a tall pedestal parfait glass is the single most elegant and sophisticated thing on the planet.
I am barefoot and sunburned, standing on tiptoe at the scarred formica countertop of my family’s old lake house with my best friend Helen, our heads barely tall enough to see over the chrome lip of the edge. We are slicing speckled overripe bananas with plastic picnic knives. We crush Nilla Wafers into the bottoms of the depression-ware glass cereal bowls, pile them high with vanilla pudding and banana circles. The broken-springed screen door bangs as we run down the concrete back steps with our bowls. We devour our creations on the giant mossy rock in the shade of the maple tree in the front yard.
Pudding reminds me of why I love cooking: a handful of very simple ingredients— milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, cornstarch— cooked together for five minutes, and the result is something delicious and magical that manages to transcend time and place. Scraping the last creamy swirls from the saucepan and licking the spatula always brings back vivid sense memories of my childhood. While custards abound in many other cooking traditions, what we in the United States call pudding is a uniquely American dessert. Custards, relying on a base of milk or cream, eggs, and sugar, can either be baked gently until the proteins firm and set, or cooked over a low heat to achieve a thickened but still pourable sauce. A classic American cooked pudding, however, relies on the activation of an added starch for its thicker texture—traditionally arrowroot, tapioca, or cornstarch. Cornstarch eventually edged out the others to become the most popular thickener because it can take the highest heat without breaking down. The addition of the starch also provides protection against overcooking and curdling, making a homemade cornstarch pudding easy enough for even a beginning cook to master.
In 1934, General Foods introduced Walter Baker’s Dessert, the first packaged cornstarch pudding mix for the retail market. Two years later, they replaced the product with their new Jell-O™ Chocolate Pudding mix, and the century-old tradition of made-from-scratch cornstarch pudding began its slow fade from the American cooking landscape. The recipes listed on the original boxes don’t look much different from what a home cook would mix together from icebox and pantry ingredients. Now, however, you’ll also find an unfortunately long and unpronounceable list of chemical ingredients on most packaged pudding mixes. All the more reason to grab a quart of milk, a few eggs, pull out the saucepan and whisk, and cook up a home-made pot of sweet nostalgia.