What could be more unadventurous? Dry White Toast? Yes, I do realize that Vanilla Pudding isn’t really something to sing about. But that is only because we are so far removed from what Vanilla Pudding once was. That dusty box of Jell-O Instant is where it ended up, not where it began.
Culinary historians believe that the precursor of Vanilla Pudding originated in early medieval Europe, an evolution of an Arab pudding-like dish of rice and almonds. The oldest recipe known dates back to the early 13th century, a translation that is believed to have been based on a manuscript from the 12th century or earlier. Over the centuries, the recipe turned into blancmange (pronounced blah-MOHNJ), meaning “white dish,” from the Old French blanc mangier. This dish was enjoyed by Europe’s wealthy during the Middle Ages. It appears frequently in recipe collections of the time from all over the Continent, and is called one of “the few truly international dishes of medieval and early modern Europe.”
The dish is referred to in the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in an early 15th-century cookbook written by the chefs of Richard II. I first came across the reference as a child, in the book Little Women.
Originally a white stew, the key ingredients of the original blancmange were milk or almond milk, sugar, and shredded capon or fish. In the 17th century, the meat was dropped and the dish evolved into a dessert pudding made with cream and eggs (and, later, gelatin*). In the 19th century, arrowroot and cornstarch were added and the dish evolved into the final, modern blanc mange, known in the U.S. as Vanilla Pudding.
Here we offer you a homemade version of Vanilla Pudding that would be welcome at a Memorial Day gathering this weekend. If one pours it into a rectangular baking dish, it can be decorated as an American flag with blueberries and strawberries.
If you can start with truly natural dairy — definitely not ultra pasteurized and ideally bought from a farm or a farmers’ market— you are really ahead of the game. Real vanilla beans also make a palpable difference. I have stopped making vanilla pudding with vanilla extract. Although the flavor of the extract is perfectly acceptable, when the dominant flavor is vanilla, you can really taste the difference if you start with a good bean.
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes, plus chilling
2 ½ cups half-and-half or whole milk
⅔ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Put 2 cups of half-and-half or milk, sugar and salt in a small or medium sauce-pot over medium-low heat. If using a vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise and scrape seeds into milk or half-and-half using small sharp knife, then add pod. Cook just until mixture begins to steam.
Combine cornstarch and remaining milk or half-and-half in a bowl and blend; there should be no lumps. Fish pod from pot and discard. Add cornstarch mixture; cook, stirring occasionally until mixture starts to thicken and barely reaches a boil, about 5 minutes. Immediately reduce heat to very low and stir for 5 minutes or so until thick. Stir in butter and vanilla extract, if using.
Pour mixture into a 1-quart dish or 4 to 6 small ramekins or bowls. Put plastic wrap directly on the pudding to prevent the formation of a skin, or do not cover if you like skin. Refrigerate until chilled, and serve within a day, with whipped cream if you like. Whisk to remove lumps if needed.