Stirring up Comfort with Homemade Pudding - No. 43
A recipe for cool and creamy Natilla
When I was young and our mother wasn’t inviting friends over for dinner, just cooking for our family, she’d make pudding. She’d lift a heavy saucepan onto the electric stove, pour in milk, and scald it, bringing it nearly to a boil.
She’d pour this hot milk into sugar and a little flour, sometimes cocoa, always a pinch of salt and vanilla, and turn this mixture back into the pan and whisk slowly and patiently until it thickened.
If she felt decadent, she’d enrich the pudding with beaten egg yolks and carefully stir them into the pot, getting their temperature up gently so they wouldn’t scramble. She’d add a little more milk, perhaps some chopped semisweet chocolate or a smidgen of coconut extract, little extras that would take a simple stirred custard into some delicious directions.
And if I was lucky, if I had been in the kitchen keeping her company, she’d hand me the wooden spoon to lick.
That was one of the warmest memories I have, and it’s my benchmark when I think of pudding.
Your pudding might not be my pudding
Pudding is a complicated word, and it greatly depends on who is in the room as to what you mean by it. With some, it is chocolate-flavored, with others rice or tapioca or banana, lined with Vanilla Wafers and blanketed in a browned meringue.
But if folks from across The Pond (the British) are part of this conversation, puddings take on another connotation. They are this great category of desserts that includes the steamed sort of plum puddings, as well as baked puddings and bread puddings, and pretty much all of their cakes and pies.
The stirred pudding of my memory is more American, stemming from something called “cornmeal mush” or “hasty pudding.” It fed families, not the British elite who settled the country, and like the name implied, it could be made quickly on the stovetop - no oven needed. Through the years, it was flavored with vanilla, burnt sugar (butterscotch and caramel pudding), chocolate, or coconut. Have I missed any?
Pudding can be a “child crying-stopper”
But you might understand my curiosity when I met my friend Susan for lunch in Atlanta recently en route to Florida, and we ate at Taqueria del Sol. She asked if I’d ever had Natilla.
It is the one and only dessert offered at the Decatur restaurant. It’s a thick, chilled pudding, and it’s not on the menu.
Brought to the table in a small white bowl, and garnished with a generous dusting of cinnamon and a squiggle of chocolate syrup in the shape of an “S,” Natilla was unknown to me.
At first bite, it was cold and smooth and creamy and redolent of cinnamon. I could see on this warm September midday how soothing it was to finish a meal this way.
Eddie Hernandez, chef and co-owner of the Taqueria del Sols, was born in Monterrey, Mexico, in the foothills of the Sierra Madré Oriental, 115 miles from Texas. And he was raised on pudding, with eggs and without, stirred by his mother and grandmother.
He carried the love of pudding with him to Atlanta where he cooked his way up in restaurant kitchens such as the old Sundown Cafe, which preceded the Taqueria de Sols. He remembered how much children loved pudding, and it came in handy.
“Back when we had Sundown, every now and then some customers would show up with their kids, and the kids did not behave. They were crying, and I would go take them a little Natilla to the table, and they calmed down. They could not cry when they ate it.
“I call it a child crying-stopper.”
And to be prepared for fussy children, Eddie made about 16 Natillas and stuck them in the fridge, just in case. And if no crying children showed up, then the staff would eat them.
What is it about pudding that transcends borders and comforts children?
Eddie likes Natilla warm. That’s the way his mother made it, often flavoring with strawberry or folding in some Mexican chocolate.
“But one day my son called me and said to bring home some Natilla. But when I got home he was out. I put it in the fridge for him, and he called me and said he loved it cold. I tried it cold, and it was a good mistake!”
What is it about pudding that even if you are unfamiliar with the recipe, or if the temperature is different or the flavor is unique, it is still so approachable? And once you taste it and you learn its story, you can relate to it even more.
How do you feel about pudding?
I guess it’s opening our eyes to other ways of making pudding and the feeling of comfort attached to it. And to the people who stir it. Hearing their stories, being exposed to their ingredients, new spices, new combinations of flavors.
As I made my way south to Jacksonville and described this Natilla to my son-in-law Hugh, the creaminess of it, the cool temperature, the cinnamon, his eyes lit up, and his next words were, “I would love that.”
You will love this…
THE RECIPE: NATILLA
This recipe is from the book, Turnip Greens & Tortillas, by Eddie Hernandez and Susan Puckett. And I’ll be giving this book away to a lucky Subscriber at the end of September. It is filled with a fabulous Southern-Mexican fusion of recipes, including their famous queso and Memphis-style barbecue tacos. I apologize for no link to print just the recipe, but I am traveling this week, out West seeing my son who has been working on a ranch post college graduation. When I return, I’ll create a link, so check back in a few days.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1/2 cup cold whole milk
1/2 cup cornstarch
4 cups (1 quart) half-and-half
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cinnamon stick
Chocolate syrup for drizzling
Ground cinnamon for sprinkling
Whisk together the milk and cornstarch in a small bowl until smooth. Set aside.
Pour the half-and-half into a medium saucepan over medium heat, and stir in the sugar, vanilla and cinnamon stick. Continue to stir as the sugar dissolves, and when the mixture begins to bubble, about 5 minutes, stir in the cornstarch mixture in a steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until it thickens.
Remove the pan from the heat, and remove the cinnamon stick.
Pour into a serving dish or into 6 to 8 small bowls. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill until cold, several hours.
To serve, drizzle with chocolate syrup and sprinkle with cinnamon.
This Subscriber Thursday:
Pudding week continues! With a preview of a banana pudding cake from my new book, A New Take on Cake, and my aunt Elizabeth’s recipe for banana pudding. It’s old-school, smothered in browned meringue, and worth the price of admission!