Homemade Tapioca Pudding

Lemon Vanilla Tapioca Pudding on Spoon

When my friend Ruby tossed me the plastic baggie filled with pearl tapioca from the bulk bin at WinCo and asked me if I knew how to use it, I immediately knew that my next blog post would be about tapioca pudding.

You might have noticed that I haven’t been writing much lately and the truth is that I still don’t feel much like cooking or writing.  But today is a good day to talk about tapioca pudding because today is my Uncle Jim’s birthday and he loved tapioca pudding.

We lost my uncle a month ago, suddenly and unexpectedly, to complications due to a cancer we hadn’t known about long enough to even accept that it had arrived.

Cancer sucks.

When I found out about my uncle, I was in transition between San Diego and Fresno.  I have been in the middle of a huge move, a huge life change.  I have moved back to Fresno alone.  I’m starting over.  I’m terrified and excited and sad.  But no matter what I’m going through or how I ended up in Fresno when I did, I’m glad to be here with my family during this tough time.  I need them; they need me.  We’re all still reeling.

So here I am, in the place where I grew up, in the place I never imagined I’d return to, unpacking boxes, sorting through emotions, trying to find my way home.  And I just haven’t felt much like writing about food.  And there hasn’t been much need for cooking as we’ve all been well-supplied with food in the past weeks thanks to generous friends and family.

But when I stopped by Ruby’s house on the way back from my last trip to San Diego and she pulled out that bag of tapioca, I knew that I would be making homemade pudding this week.  I need comfort.  I need to cook.  I need this place to feel like home.  And as I said, it is Jim’s birthday.  I don’t know how to play golf or ride a motorcycle (either of which would have been a fitting way to celebrate), but I can certainly make tapioca pudding.

Lemon Vanilla Tapioca

This version of tapioca pudding is based on a recipe I found in The Gourmet Cookbook.  I made some changes, including using vanilla bean instead of extract and adding finely grated lemon zest.  The flavors are perfect together.  As you’ll see from the ingredients list, this is a decadent pudding and well worth the 25 minutes you’ll stand in front of the stove stirring.  Trust me.

For this pudding you need to use small pearl tapioca, not the instant kind.

Small Pearl Tapioca

When making tapioca pudding, it is important to stir constantly (not vigorously – a slow, gentle stir is fine) and cook at a low temperature to avoid scorching.  Using a thick-bottomed heavy pot is also helpful, but as long as you keep the heat low enough and keep the mixture moving, the pudding should turn out fine.

Tapioca on Stove

Vanilla Lemon Tapioca Pudding
adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook
yield: approximately 8 servings

scant 1/2 cup small pearl tapioca (not instant)
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 large egg yolks, slightly beaten
scant 1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
zest of one small lemon
1/2 cup well-chilled heavy cream

Soak tapioca in 1 cup of water for 30 minutes, then drain (do not rinse) and set aside.

In a medium-sized heavy saucepan, whisk together milk, egg yolks, sugar and salt.  Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape seeds from the middle of the bean into the pot.  Whisk vanilla bean seeds into the mixture then add the bean pod halves. (If you are using vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, it will be stirred in after the pudding has cooked.)  Add tapioca then bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, stirring slowly but constantly with a wooden spoon.  The pudding will start to thicken immediately – this is fine.  Turn heat to low and continue to simmer, stirring slowly and constantly, for another 20 to 30 minutes or until the tapioca is completely translucent – the time will vary depending on the size of your tapioca.

Remove pudding from heat and stir in lemon zest (and vanilla extract if using instead of vanilla bean).  Cover and let cool to lukewarm.  In a separate bowl, beat cream (make sure it’s cold) with an electric mixer until it holds soft peaks.  Stir cooled tapioca, then gently fold in the whipped cream until thoroughly combined.  Scrape pudding into a serving bowl (or individual bowls) and serve immediately or cover with plastic wrap (pressing the wrap onto the surface of the pudding will prevent a skin from forming) and chill until ready to serve.

Recipe notes: When I say to use “scant” half cups of tapioca and sugar, that means slightly less than full.  As stated in the recipe, vanilla extract can be substituted for the vanilla bean – I’ve tried it both ways, and both are delicious.  Make sure the lemon zest is finely grated so the texture isn’t too noticeable in the pudding – a microplane grater works great for this.  The lemon zest may also be left out completely for a more traditional tapioca.

Although this version of tapioca pudding feels very grown-up with the vanilla bean and lemon zest, it will please kids and adults alike – just ask Emma and Abby!

Emma Eating Tapioca

Abby Eating Tapioca

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67 Comments
  1. Lili

    Hang in there!! I hope you are feeling better!!
    Just to let you know I enjoy your blog very much, love your recipes and pics!!!

    I will wait, and hope to see you back when you feel like it!!!

    8:30 pm  May 24th, 2010
  2. Habermas

    Yeah, it’s good, very useful, thanks :)

    8:11 pm  Jun 2nd, 2010
  3. Alyssa

    Sorry for your loss. And thank you for this recipe, I made this today. It was so good apparently that my ten year old sister ate half of it..She came to me and said ”Im sorry..I didnt realize it til it was gone, I just kept eating and eating because it was good..” xD.

    6:47 pm  Oct 11th, 2010
  4. Tapioca Pudding, Boston-Born | Public Radio Kitchen | Blogs | WBUR

    […] Pudding’ recipe came from The Gourmet Cookbook and was prepared and tested by the author of Pinch My Salt. She used real tapioca pearls, substituted vanilla beans for extract and, in the midst of a family […]

    12:44 pm  Oct 28th, 2010
  5. Cindy

    I’m wondering, if scorching is a concern, why you didn’t use a double boiler? I don’t have one, but have found that a stainless steel mixing bowl set over a pot of boiling water works just as well. Would the pudding not turn out as well?

    12:32 pm  Nov 28th, 2010
  6. Frank

    when I make tapicoca, it is frequently rubbery, can you tell me what I am probable doing wrong

    7:36 pm  Feb 7th, 2011
  7. Dee Vogel

    This is for Diane Christensen, who thinks we need a cookbook of funeral food – I think you would enjoy the Sweet Potato Queens books. These are hilarious and wonderfully-written sendups of stereotypical Southern womanhood, by Jill Conner Browne, so grab a copy of The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love and check out the chapter on page 180 about “Funeral Food” – and then enjoy the rest of the book, too, and I guarantee shortly you will want to get your hands on God Save the Sweet Potato Queens and The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook. Cheers!

    4:03 pm  Mar 27th, 2011
  8. Iouma

    Hi, I tried your nice & wonderful tapioka pudding recipe. I loved it sooooo much and so do my all family. I’ll try another your recipe. thank you!!

    6:23 am  Oct 11th, 2011
  9. Michele

    This is the second time I’ve come across a recipe that I was looking for and your blog popped up. Then I read this entry and saw a familiar word, FRESNO. I was born and raised here, left to move to the Sacramento area when my husband went to work for Intel. I hope things worked out for you since this blog entry.

    6:57 pm  Jan 26th, 2012
  10. Colleen

    Sorry for your loss. This is a good receipe, but folks need to be sure to cook it completely as tapioca is known for it’s cinaide properties.

    2:46 pm  Nov 5th, 2012
  11. Tapioca Thai pudding | Huckleberry Mountain Mama

    […] yolks. Top with some whipped heavy cream for an extra treat. Enjoy! Loosely followed this recipe. (http://pinchmysalt.com/homemade-tapioca-pudding/) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in […]

    9:46 am  Jan 27th, 2013
  12. Frankie

    Found this a little too custardy for my liking. The egg yolks are probably the culprit! Lately I’ve been cooking my tapioca in coconut milk but thought I’d give this recipe a try since I was all out of coconut milk. I liked the lemon zest. Next time I’ll try lemon zest in my coconut milk recipe.

    10:41 pm  May 16th, 2013
  13. pi

    hey there,

    i admit i skip stories and go straight to the recipe. i made this and altered it a bit making my own almond milk in the blender (1 cup soaked nuts to 4 cups water, blend) and instead of using whipping cream, whipping up the egg whites left after using the yolks in the main simmering. also instead of using sugar i put in 2/3 honey, 1/3 maple syrup. thus making the recipe refined-sugar-free and vegan / dairy-free. then i threw in a previously frozen but then mushy forgotten about banana someone left out and a bunch of fresh raspberries from our garden instead of the lemon zest. i seriously tripled the recipe (when i make pudding, i like a LOT of pudding!), and now all my pudding eaters are lounging their full bellies in the sun!

    thanks for the recipe!

    7:22 pm  Jun 29th, 2013
  14. Dee Vogel

    I don’t think vegans eat honey, Pi. Just sayin’.

    I did very much enjoy your take-no-prisoners approach to the pudding, though – cooking bold & fearless!

    8:36 pm  Jun 29th, 2013
  15. pi

    haha, you are correct, dee. thanks. also, vegans don’t eat eggs. i’ve been transitioning out of veganism for the last 6 months or so after about 8 years of being vegan. it’s still a habit of mine to call everything vegan (which i am also trying to place back into reality). however, the pudding i made is dairy-free.

    thanks for the compliment!

    11:50 am  Jul 1st, 2013
  16. Diana Skottegaard

    My thoughts and prayers to you and your family. Thank you for the time you spend sharing your recipes with us!

    8:20 pm  Jul 6th, 2013
  17. Mary Miller

    This winter has had a rough start for many of us. Your delightful blog has cheered me. In the light of things, Fresno beats San Diego hands down. As a native of the Golden State, I can say this with some clarity….this too shall pass…be well and blessings sent.

    4:05 am  Jan 15th, 2015
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