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The Physics of Pudding

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This is my pudding theory:

We love pudding because it's basically a milkshake that can't get away. We love pudding because it's ice cream that won't melt. We love pudding because it's candy we can eat with spoons. We love pudding because it's hot cocoa we can eat cold.
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We love pudding because it offers the best qualities of many other comfort foods, yet lacks their flaws. It's sweet and smooth. It can assume a thousand different flavors. It can be studded, streaked, topped or plain. It can be eaten hot or cold or at room temperature, yet always holds its shape.

Most of us prefer to savor comfort food ever so slowly, nip by exquisitely tiny nip. This makes it last while lending us an almost sexual sense of control. Ice cream forbids this, forcing us to rush against time and against our will, which tinges every cone and sundae with angst, regret and resentment. Pudding will not do this to us. Pudding stays.

Meanwhile, liquid comfort foods defy you to stay focused on them. Liquids, as you learned while suckling, are designed to be devoured effortlessly. Automatically. We need not look at liquid while consuming it. We sip, then gaze in self-recriminating horror at the empty vessels in our hands. Pudding will never do this to us. Pudding stays.
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Pudding is a childhood food, favored because it is easy (often instant) to prepare and easy to digest. It's only barely more complex than baby food. And while we are forced to relinquish other childhood favorites, adults eat pudding without shame -- especially if it's called crème brûlée. Thus pudding stays in yet another way. It transcends time.

Along with other childhood foods, pudding now pops up on postmodern restaurant menus. At elegant Michelin Bib Gourmand Award-winning bistro FIVE in Berkeley, California, Texas-bred executive chef Banks White uses his grandmother's recipe to produce golden, gloriously creamy, borderline smoky butterscotch pudding. His secret? Guittard butterscotch chips. (See picture and recipe below.)

Pudding is the supreme universal comfort food because, like a compliant friend, pudding lets us do stuff to it.

Chef Devon Boisen of the art-deco Terrace Room in Oakland, California likes setting it on fire.

"Treat it like eggnog," he advises. "Use rum or Drambuie or something with a whisky flavor." His personal favorite is Austrian Stroh spiced rum, "because it's 160 proof and you can literally float this over the top of anything" and ignite it with the flick of a lighter.

Boisen, who serves seasonal crème brûlée at the Terrace Room, grew up eating pudding on a Montana farm.

"We always had the freshest eggs, the freshest cream. When you have a chance to make anything with ingredients that fresh, it's delicious. By comparison, the 'pudding' that comes in cans is a joke.

"A lot of desserts that go by different names are actually pudding. Vanilla custard is pudding. The filling for banana-cream pies and whatnot: That's pudding."

As are flan, kheer and khao niao sang khaya.
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Craving the creamy stuff? Here's Chef White's butterscotch-pudding recipe:

4 c cream
16 egg yolks
¼ c brown sugar
10 ½ oz butterscotch chips
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt

Place butterscotch chips in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium-sized pot, bring cream to a simmer. Combine egg yolks with brown sugar; set aside. Once the cream begins to simmer, remove it from heat. Pour half into the yolk-and-sugar mixture; whisk to combine. Pour back into pot. Over medium heat and using a candy thermometer, heat to 190F while stirring constantly with a silicone spatula.

When the mixture reaches 190F, pour it immediately over the chips and whisk until chips are melted and fully incorporated. While it's still hot, pass the mixture through a fine sieve into a pitcher. Portion into individual cups and refrigerate for a minimum of four hours or until set.

Keep refrigerated. Pudding will last up to one week in the refrigerator. Top with whipped cream and crushed peanut brittle.

Images courtesy of Amy Partridge and Kristan Lawson.

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