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Thursday, August 29, 2013

What Vanilla Pudding Wishes it Was...Plus Our New Cafe

Have you made vanilla or chocolate pudding from a mix recently? Childhood memories must be playing tricks on me: those mixes just do not taste as good as I remember them.

Back in the day, it was dinner at 6 – don’t be late! – and if we had dessert on a weekday, it was usually watermelon or peaches in summer, and in winter, jello, canned peaches or pudding, served up in footed dessert cups.  But that was only if you ate everything on your plate, of course.

Sometimes the vanilla pudding was folded together with bananas and vanilla wafers in a square Pyrex baking dish.  And always, whipped cream from a can was available to squirt on top. Simple tastes for simple times.

Following is a recipe for pastry cream which undoubtedly tastes better than those long ago desserts, although it can never surpass the warm memories of time spent at the family table, admonitions of  no elbows on the table! no talking with your mouth full! no interrupting! notwithstanding.

There is a richness and depth of flavor from the combination of half and half, egg yolks, pure vanilla and fresh butter in this pastry cream which simply can’t be duplicated in pudding mixes.

Alien invasion at the Library!
Coffee and books - a great combination...

Grover’s Mill Coffee House in West Windsor, known for great coffee - they roast the beans themselves! -  just opened a cafĂ© in our Library, and I was honored to make the cakes for their Grand Opening:  white cake with almond scented pastry cream, and whipped cream frosting.  The cakes, never from a mix of course, were enormous.  The ingredients tally: 48 eggs, 9 sticks of butter, 3 quarts of half and half for the pastry cream, and another 3 quarts of  heavy cream for the whipped cream frosting (certainly not from a can!). 

One customer came to the desk saying, “I just had to come over to see who baked this, because I took one taste and thought, “A real person baked this, not a bakery!” “.  

I used The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book (in our Library!) for their pastry cream recipe.   Pastry cream is a very straightforward, but not necessarily “easy” preparation.  You have to follow the directions exactly (don’t run out of the kitchen to do something else in the middle!), but if you do, your pastry cream will be perfect. A little technique here goes a long way.

Pastry Cream adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

2 cups half-and-half
½ cup granulated sugar, divided as follows:  6 Tablespoons , plus 2 Tablespoons
½ teaspoon kosher salt, (or ¼ teaspoon regular table salt)
5 egg yolks
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
4 Tablespoons butter (1/2 stick), cut into 4 pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat up the half and half, 6 Tablespoons of the sugar, and the salt together over medium high heat, stirring occasionally to keep from burning or sticking to the pan.  In the meantime, in a medium bowl whisk together the egg yolks, 2 Tablespoons of sugar, and cornstarch.

When the half and half just comes to a simmer, ladle out one cupful and add in a slow steady stream to the egg yolk mixture, being sure to whisk constantly (a helper could come in handy here – or just nest your bowl in a damp kitchen towel so the bowl doesn’t move). 

This gradual addition of the hot liquid brings up the temperature of the egg yolks slowly so the eggs don’t turn into hard bits of scrambled egg.

When that cup of hot half and half is completely incorporated, slowly whisk the egg mixture back into the bowl of the still simmering remaining half and half.  Then lower the heat to medium and whisk until thickened and a few bubbles pop slowly on the surface of the pudding.

Immediately remove from heat and add in the butter and vanilla extract (and almond extract, if using).

Transfer to a bowl and cover the top with plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the cream (or a piece of parchment paper if you prefer not to have plastic in contact with your food).
Cool for 3 hours.  (Can be made a few days ahead of time.)

Besides using pastry cream for a great cake filling, make a quick dessert by combining with bananas and vanilla wafers for a retro combination; mixing with peaches and gingersnaps; or pairing with blueberries, raspberries and amaretti cookies.  Adding a flavored liqueur like framboise (raspberry), Grand Marnier (orange), or Amaretto (almond), when adding the vanilla extract would be a nice addition too, along with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

After consuming the fake “pastry cream” which most bakeries serve, people forget how delicious simple things made from scratch can be.   This is one of those quintessentially old fashioned recipes that makes you feel like you’ve re-discovered an old friend, even if you’ve only ever had the boxed pudding mixes.

Try this with coffee made from the freshly roasted coffee beans now available in our new cafe - the Grover's Mill Coffee House at the South Brunswick Public Library, and enjoy with a good book!

Diane Whitman
Twitter @whitlibrarian
Reference Librarian
Grover's Mill Coffee Loyalist

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