Years ago, a friend took me to one of his favorite restaurants in New York City. Dinner was fantastic, the company riveting, but what stayed with me most was dessert: Maple budino. One bite and I was smitten.
The pudding was luxuriously fatty and creamy, and the flavor was incredibly clean: maple and maybe a little floral vanilla. Budino is simply Italian for pudding, but this was unlike any pudding I'd ever eaten. For the record, I am a pudding fan. I grew up having "pudding parties" with my sister, the two of us making pudding out of the box, lightly scorching every saucepan in the house over the years.
Chocolate pudding and the "Love Boat/Fantasy Island" lineup pretty much punctuate my entire childhood experience.
Later, I learned how easy it is to make a quick stovetop pudding from scratch. Simply follow this formula (which is easily scaled up): 1 cup milk plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch plus 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar plus flavorings (vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, etc.). The trick to a smooth stovetop pudding is to whisk the cornstarch and sugar first in the cold saucepan to break up lumps, then whisk in the milk. Heat over medium and allow to boil gently for 2 to 3 minutes, constantly whisking. Pour into ramekins and chill. Or eat warm while watching Julie McCoy.
Making your own puddings means you control the ingredients. Since milk already is a little sweet, you don't need a ton of extra sugar. And you can slowly reduce the amount of sugar over time, so your family grows accustomed to a healthier dessert. Fat, too, is under your control. You can use whole milk for restaurant-creamy results or skim milk if you don't mind a less-lush texture in exchange for a skinny calorie count.
I also love baked custard puddings. They require more effort, but they are more likely to feel at home at a dinner party. This maple budino is a baked custard, but feel free to make a stovetop version using my formula above.
Start to finish: 1 hour (15 minutes active), plus cooling
1 cup 2 percent milk
Â¾ cup whole milk
Â½ vanilla bean pod, scraped
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
Â¼ cup maple syrup, plus extra
Â¼ teaspoon table salt
Flaked sea salt
1. Heat the oven to 325 F.
2. In a medium saucepan over medium, combine both milks. Heat until they just come to a simmer. Add the vanilla bean, brown sugar, maple syrup and salt, whisking until uniform.
3. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until smooth and pale yellow. Drizzle about 1/4 cup of the hot milk mixture into the eggs, whisking all the time. Once mixed, add another 1/4 cup of milk, again whisking. Add the remaining milk mixture, and mix gently just until well combined. Remove and discard the vanilla bean. Pour into six 4-ounce ramekins.
4. Carefully set the ramekins into a large baking dish with sides higher than the ramekins. Pour boiling water gently into the baking dish, adding enough to fill halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Be careful not to splash water into the ramekins. Carefully place the baking dish in the oven and bake until the budinos are set (the centers will still be jiggly), 30 to 40 minutes.
5. Once the budinos are cooked, immediately remove the ramekins from the hot water bath. Let them cool a few minutes, then refrigerate to finish setting, at least 1 hour. Serve with a drizzle of maple syrup and a few flecks of salt, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 130 calories; 30 calories from fat (23 percent of total calories); 3.5 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 160 mg sodium; 22 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 20 g sugar; 4 g protein.