Cinnamon-vanilla chocolate pudding

I mentioned in this old post that I had a particular recipe for cinnamon-vanilla chocolate pudding with some unusual taste properties.  At the risk of precipitating the degeneration of this journal into a food blog, let me talk about it.

Once, maybe two or three years ago, I remembered how I used to love making chocolate pudding from a powder; not the instant stuff, which is vile, but the kind you have to boil in milk until it thickens.  I think it’s the Jello variety that’s pretty good.  But my mother always made faint noises about how she and her mother used to make chocolate pudding from scratch, and I was always curious.

It’s not hard; actually, it’s really quite the same.  You just have to formulate the right powder, which is done with some combination of sugar, powdered cocoa, and cornstarch.  If you get the numbers right, it comes out pretty good, and of course it can be varied: I found one recipe on Simply Recipes (a much better place for recipes than here) that produces a really rich pudding by using egg yolks.  Perhaps it’s my Jello upbringing, but I like the cornstarch version better.

The recipe I found was on Allrecipes, which is actually not bad (unlike Cooks.com, which should be disregarded out of hand): it’s here.  Don’t follow it exactly, but read the comments: the basic recipe suffers from many minor flaws.  Too much cornstarch and too much sugar are the obvious ones.  Let me contribute another, subtler one: vanilla extract.

Okay, I love vanilla.  I have a 16oz bottle of the stuff that I got for some price I would have thought was a fantasy (the kind that’s escapism for me, not for the store) from someone else and I can never possibly use it all.  Up until now, I would have thought it to be a fine substitute for the even more fantastically expensive vanilla beans, but it turns out to be second-rate even when pure.  The genuine item is really something else.

Using a vanilla bean is actually a bit of an art.  You can’t just throw it in at the end, since you have to get that flavor out, and you can’t simmer it with everything else since it takes a while to do that.  I actually only learned the trick when I was in Israel preparing part of a Thanksgiving dinner for the rest of the math program, specifically the dessert part, which was a persimmon “pudding” (unlike the puddings considered here, this one was actually a cake) with a cinnamon crème anglaise.  (Should I have italicized that?  Snobby insert-French always is.)

The instructions for such a sauce are very simple: flavor the milk, and then temper in some egg yolks to thicken it.  The flavoring was accomplished by letting a cinnamon stick float in scalded (but not boiled) milk for about an hour first, thus creating a tea of sorts.   After I got back home, the first time I wanted chocolate pudding I also simultaneously wanted Mexican chocolate, but I don’t know where to get my hands on that for a reasonable price (there is something called Taza that does it, but it’s like one million dollars for an ounce).  Of course, Mexican chocolate is primarily chocolate with cinnamon in it (also chile, but I wasn’t about to do that), and I remembered that dinner….

Thus was born the cinnamon-vanilla chocolate pudding.  I had some leftover half-used vanilla beans from Greta’s birthday last year, when I made souffles, and they are good for several soakings, so I had just washed them off and dried them again.  I threw one in with a cinnamon stick and let it steep in the milk for an hour, then proceeded as usual with the pudding.  The result?

Well, I’ve made this pudding a few times, and it’s always fooled people.  They guess that it has nutmeg in it, or they claim they don’t know what the spice is.  I also can’t really tell; I can discern the cinnamon and of course, the chocolate, but not the vanilla, and neither of them really tastes like it usually does.  It’s a new taste (and not like nutmeg, either).  It’s best fresh, and it’s best with a lot of sugar, which it mitigates surprisingly well.  Somehow the sweetness amplifies the spice, whereas usually it is a little sickening.

Back to the vanilla extract: this just doesn’t work with extract.  Maybe it’s because you add it at the end, but you can’t add it at the beginning because it will vanish.  And you can’t use cinnamon powder because it doesn’t really dissolve like chocolate (cinnamon is basically wood).  Maybe the steeping extracts the tastes differently than simply inserting an alcohol solution would (certainly that is the case for cinnamon sticks versus cinnamon powder).  Maybe it just doesn’t have enough taste.  Either way, the time I tried this without the vanilla bean it just tasted like cinnamon-flavored chocolate pudding, which was tasty, but not that good.

Here’s the recipe, at least as I remember it.  I never mark my changes on the printout I have so I have to figure out what my usual decisions are.

Ingredients

1/2 vanilla bean, seeded (I don’t know what to do with the seeds.  Cook something else with them.)
4in cinnamon stick
3/4 cup white sugar (1/2 cup if you like)
1/4 cup and 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder (that’s 5 tablespoons)
1/8 cup and 1 tablespoon cornstarch (that’s 3 tablespoons, and half what Allrecipes wants)
1/4 teaspoon salt (it actually says 1/8, but I don’t do such small increments)
1 quart milk
3 tablespoons butter (this is a dessert, don’t skimp)

Equipment

A small mixing bowl
A medium-sized pot
A whisk, or at least a wooden spoon

Directions

  1. Scald the milk: heat it on low until steam begins to rise off the surface, and until the surface itself appears to form a faint skin.  This is the point just before it begins to simmer.  By raising it just to this temperature you will avoid changing the physical properties of milk, but we need it to be hot.
  2. Turn off the heat and throw in the vanilla bean and the cinnamon stick.  Cover the pot and let it steep for an hour or more.  No one will complain if it goes longer and the milk will stay warm for quite some time.
  3. While it’s steeping, mix up the powders in the bowl and thoroughly stir them together with the whisk or spoon.  They have a tendency to form little clumps when added to the liquid and it would be nice if, at least, those clumps were homogeneous.
  4. After the milk is done, mix in the powders and put the temperature on medium.  Break up those clumps if they form, and keep stirring.
  5. Keep stirring.
  6. Stir until the pudding is boiling. Just because it gets a tiny bit thicker doesn’t mean it’s even close to done; if you don’t make it boil, then it will taste like cornstarch.
  7. Turn off the heat, mix in the butter.  It helps a bit if you cut it into little centimeter-long cubes first.
  8. Let it cool.  You want to prevent a skin from forming (really, you do), so you want to lay some plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding.  Don’t worry; it’s not hot enough to melt the plastic.  If you are worried, or you want to clean the pot, put it all in a big storage dish like you use for leftovers and put the plastic on there. Any part of the pudding that’s not flush with the plastic will become skin.

I find that about four soup spoons’ worth of pudding is enough for anyone at any one time.  This will last two people like a week if they eat it religiously after dinner.

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2 Responses to Cinnamon-vanilla chocolate pudding

  1. What kind of cocoa powder do you use? Also, where do you get vanilla beans?

    • ryancreich says:

      Hey Evan! I just use Hershey’s cocoa, the “vanilla” version (haha). Don’t use “Special Dark”, like I once did: dark chocolate is great and all in bars, but it tastes terrible in pudding. As for vanilla beans, they are a bit uncommon but it seems that sufficiently nice supermarkets have one or two jars in with the rest of the spices (in a jar just like those of the other spices). Whole Foods should definitely have them like this.

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