(Mock) Indian Pudding

Today is National Indian Pudding Day! (Who knew?)

Don't be fooled by the photo of blobs of brown gooeyness — this is a heavenly dish. The scent of molasses and baking corn accented with faint whiffs of cinnamon will drive you wild as it bakes (or bubbles in a slow-cooker). With a name like "Indian Pudding," this corn and molasses laden pudding is sure to evoke images of the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Native Americans. None of this would be accurate. What's more likely is that "indian" (not capitalized) was used as a colonial term for corn in many recipes dating back to the 18th century, so indian pudding = corn pudding! For an interesting historical review of how this pudding has evolved and how it got its name, What's Cooking America is the place to start.

But what I call indian pudding is probably not what most people consider indian pudding. The recipe I know and love has pearl tapioca, an addition that some in the blogosphere apparently consider blasphemous. My condolences to them. My first taste of this filling pudding came 11 Thanksgivings ago. It was love at first bite: a rich and creamy cornmeal custard redolent of molasses and punctuated by chewy pearls of tapioca — what's not to love?! I have to admit, though, that as much as I am inclined to love molasses and cornmeal in any form, it was the jewels of chewy tapioca that really stole my heart.

I begged the recipe from T's mother, who likewise had received it from her mother-in-law (Grandma B) — a native Mainer born and bred. I only learned that indian pudding usually does not include tapioca when I misplaced my copy from T's mom a couple of years ago and did a web search for indian pudding recipes. I was puzzled to find that none of the recipes in the first 15 pages of search results had tapioca as an ingredient. I tried a new search with "tapioca" added to the search query — this time I ended up with mostly South Asian recipes with tapioca, coconut milk and saffron. Then last year T's parents gave me Grandma B's recipe collection, and there I found a recipe card with Grandma's delicate and careful writing titled "Mock Indian Pudding." I can only guess that the tapioca is what relegates it to a mock version. But since this version is still the only one I've ever tried and is the one I first fell in love with, it will always be the real deal to me.

Don't wait for Thanksgiving to try this luscious pudding. With all the milk, cornmeal, egg and tapioca, it's quite the perfect breakfast food any time of the year. And though indian pudding is usually served with whipped cream or ice cream, it is equally indulgent with just a swirl of plain heavy cream or half-and-half for added richness without more sweetening. With a cup of hot coffee, this is a bowl that will warm the cockles of your heart on the coldest morning.

Let this be the day you discover for yourself how the humblest of ingredients can be elevated to such sublime heights.
Happy National Indian Pudding Day!

Adapted from a recipe of Mrs. Helen Buzzell of Brunswick, Maine
Serves 8-10 persons

Grandma B's original recipe was baked, but T's mom adapted it for the slow-cooker. We always use the slow-cooker method. If you're making this for Thanksgiving, the slow-cooker has the added advantage of freeing up precious oven space. Both methods are included here.

4 cups (946ml) milk (recommend whole milk, but anything down to 1% would be OK; non-fat will produce a watery rather than creamy pudding)
3 TBL (32g) coarse-ground cornmeal
cup (158ml) dark molasses (preferably blacktstrap molasses)
⅔ - ¾ cup (128g-144g) raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp sea salt
butter, to grease the baking dish

½ cup (88g) pearl tapioca (available in Asian grocery stores, and in natural food shops)
1 cup (236ml) milk

Pre-heat oven to 300F/150C
In a medium saucepan, scald milk over medium high heat. Grease 6qt or larger baking dish with butter. Combine scalded milk, cornmeal, molasses, sugar, eggs, cinnamon and salt, and pour into prepared baking dish. Bake 1 hour.

(Slow-cooker Method: After scalding milk, add milk, cornmeal, molasses, sugar, eggs, cinnamon and salt to a 5-6qt/L slow-cooker. Set on HIGH for 1 hour.)

Soak pearl tapioca (at right in photo, regular tapioca on left) in cold milk while pudding is baking.

After pudding has baked for 1 hour, add soaked tapioca and milk, stir well to distribute. Turn oven down to 250F/122C and continue baking until tapioca are transparent, another 1½ hours to 2 hours.

(Slow-cooker Method: Add soaked tapioca and milk, stir well, and turn cooker down to LOW for 3-4 hours, or until tapioca are transparent.)

Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream, ice cream or a drizzle of plain heavy cream.

Looking for alternative desserts for Thanksgiving? How about a Pumpkin Cheesecake?

Like molasses? Gram's Molasses Crinkles and Anadama Bread will tickle your molasses sweet tooth.

If you love corn as much as I do, you'll find cornmeal in this Greek cornmeal and greens casserole called Plasto (slow-cooker version), and sweet kernel corn goes into two wonderful soups: Chilled Buttermilk Corn Chowder and Ewa Sweet Corn Soup with Kauai Shrimp; as well as Okra & Corn Stew with Jerk Salmon.