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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66 Comments
  1. Danielle

    Sorry to read about what you’re going through at the moment – take whatever time you need away from the blog, we’ll still be here reading, regardless :) We have a traditional Southeast Asian dessert that features these pearls in a coconut milk broth with cubes of yam and sweet potato, it’s really comforting as I’m sure yours was!

    11:42 am  May 7th, 2010
  2. Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday

    I love pudding, but I don’t think I’ve ever had tapioca!
    Shameful.

    11:47 am  May 7th, 2010
  3. Ruby

    By far the best tapioca pudding I’ve had in my life! Thanks Nicole, glad you knew what to do with it.

    11:59 am  May 7th, 2010
  4. jenny

    I should give that a try, it sounds like scary school dinners but to be fair, I dont think I’ve ever even tried it, so maybe its about time I did.

    I’m so sorry about your uncle and I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling a bit lost. I hope you find what you’re looking for in Fresno. I really loved it up in the sequoias up there, maybe that will give you a bit of peace to pop up there and check out the big trees?

    12:14 pm  May 7th, 2010
  5. The Cooking Ninja

    I love your tapioca pudding. I’ll see if I can it tapioca pearls here. I’m sorry to hear that you are going through a tough period of your life but I’m glad you are with your family. Take your time to settle down and feel you again and get back on your feet. We’ll still be here to support you and cheer you on. Take care.

    12:45 pm  May 7th, 2010
  6. Alanna

    I can’t make you comfort-food tapioca pudding but I “can” send a virtual hug … as I do. Be well …

    12:53 pm  May 7th, 2010
  7. Steph

    Touching blog post…i like how you connected it with your awesome Uncle Jim and your new life journey.

    1:03 pm  May 7th, 2010
  8. MaryMoh

    This looks creamy and delicious. Your girls are so adorable!

    1:15 pm  May 7th, 2010
  9. GretchenJoanna

    I have made many versions of tapioca over the last two years especially, because I love it so much, including Indian, vegan, large and small pearls…but I will have to try yours, because the lemon and the whipped cream at the end are things I haven’t tried yet. Thanks for sharing.

    1:20 pm  May 7th, 2010
  10. Corinne

    I can’t wait to try the pudding, looks very good. Thank you for an awesome post about an awesome man. He loved you so much. I miss him, but I love that we still have things like Tapioca that can make us feel a little closer to him.

    I am SO happy that you came home.

    1:44 pm  May 7th, 2010
  11. Caron Golden

    Hi Nicole:
    I’m so sorry for all these losses you’re going through. This was a sweet tribute and all of us get a wonderful recipe as a bonus. I hope you’re doing okay. I sure missing my neighbor!

    3:25 pm  May 7th, 2010
  12. Reeta Cartalano

    I adore tapioca! We had it regularly when I was growing up. One time when my mother was not feeling well, I made it for the family. Turned our like rubber. My dad and siblings thought it was funny. I didn’t; there was no tapioca for me to eat!

    3:33 pm  May 7th, 2010
  13. Diane Christensen

    I am so sorry for your loss. What a wonderful way to honor your Uncle Jim, posting a fabulous tapioca pudding recipe.
    Sometimes I think there should be a funeral food cookbook. The book should be divided into regions of the country – southern funeral food, rocky mountain funeral food etc.
    I will be thinking of you and your family during this difficult time.

    3:58 pm  May 7th, 2010
  14. nika

    So very sorry to hear about these sad times!

    Diane: google answers your question!

    Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World (Paperback) http://www.amazon.com/Death-Warmed-Over-Funeral-Rituals/dp/1580085636

    4:12 pm  May 7th, 2010
  15. Joanne

    I’m sorry things have been rough, babe. I know you will get through this and be stronger than ever afterward. And in the meantime, you’ll have your family and this scrumptious pudding to get you through!

    4:23 pm  May 7th, 2010
  16. Susan C

    May the comfort of family, friends and food get you through this difficult time in your life.

    4:28 pm  May 7th, 2010
  17. Sook

    Wow, the pudding looks fantastic! I will have to try it.

    4:42 pm  May 7th, 2010
  18. Trish

    I’ve missed your blog. I’m praying for you and your family. Take all the time you need-we’ll still be here when you’re ready to post again.

    4:43 pm  May 7th, 2010
  19. DawnK

    I’m sorry you’re having a rough time right now. What a great way to remember someone so special. I’ll have to try it sometime.

    4:57 pm  May 7th, 2010
  20. Ruth W.

    You have touched my heart with your Tapioca Recipe as my mom used to fix it and I’ve only used the box in the grocery stores to fix it and it never tasted like hers. (She passed away many years ago) Thanks for sharing part of your heart with us and bless you and your family during this difficult time. I will use this recipe in honor of my mother and your uncle!

    6:50 pm  May 7th, 2010
  21. Shannon B

    So sorry to hear about your loss and your huge transition. I’m so glad to hear you’re surrounded by family.

    6:50 pm  May 7th, 2010
  22. Deanna

    I’ve never made tapioca pudding but I love it! I usually eat a version of it in Vietnamese restaurants by my house.

    7:20 pm  May 7th, 2010
  23. Kalyn

    I’m so glad you have your family there while you go through all the stuff life is throwing at your right now. Sending hugs and best wishes.

    8:21 pm  May 7th, 2010
  24. Jenni

    Thank you for the recipe and the story that goes with it. I’ve never made tapioca pudding and have always wanted to try it! I will put this in my To-Do list for sometime in the near future, who knows, maybe I’ll make it for Mother’s Day!

    Sorry to hear of your loss. We just recently lost my grandfather to a stroke and then a brain bleed from falling out of the bed in the nursing home, and like your uncle he went too quickly. He had been cutting down a tree the day he had a stroke. We were not ready to say goodbye to him. All of that to say, I can relate with you and pray that you will find comfort in your family and I think it’s wonderful to celebrate him in the way you are! I will surely think of your article when I make it too! Blessings :)

    8:55 pm  May 7th, 2010
  25. The Nervous Cook

    Tapioca! This makes me miss my dad so much — he is a pudding maniac. Thank you so much for sharing this recipe, and for those joyful, tapioca-full pictures!

    9:17 pm  May 7th, 2010
  26. emilie123

    My caring thoughts are with you.
    I plan on making this recipe for a friend, this weekend.
    :-)

    2:47 am  May 8th, 2010
  27. Nina

    Big big big tapioca pudding hugs to you. I know you’re reeling now, but time, comfort food and family are close at hand – take care of yourself xx

    3:12 am  May 8th, 2010
  28. Avanika (Yumsilicious Bakes)

    So sorry to hear the bad news! But I’ve had this pudding a lot, I’m sure it must have cheered you up, atleast a little. It’s made quite oftne here in India!

    4:40 am  May 8th, 2010
  29. Jodi

    This recipe looks amazing and Ruby’s girls definitely look like they are loving it. I am glad you are surrounded by family and friends Nicole during this transitional time and I am sorry for the loss of your Uncle. I wish you all the best in your new start, you always have struck me as confident and strong. Hugs to you.

    5:01 am  May 8th, 2010
  30. Phoo-D

    Times like this definitely call for pudding. It is my favorite comfort food. A big virtual hug to you. I’m so sorry to hear about the sadness and challenges you’re fighting through right now. Hang in there.

    5:33 am  May 8th, 2010
  31. Madeleine @ Notes On A Page

    Major life changes are incredibly stressful. This pudding looks so warm and comforting, though. I hope it helped you feel a little better, at least for a moment!

    8:22 am  May 8th, 2010
  32. Sue

    I love your blog–I haven’t had a chance to make anything yet, but it’s almost like cooking and baking just by reading your blog. Great photos, too.
    You have lots of fans/friends who support you!

    8:54 am  May 8th, 2010
  33. Zibi

    Family always makes things better, of course tapioca pudding can’t hurt either! I like your addition of lemon zest. The only time I’ve made tapioca pudding I used coconut milk, vanilla and nutmeg. Your girls would probably enjoy those flavours too :)

    1:49 pm  May 8th, 2010
  34. kickpleat

    It’s always good to take a break when you need it and major life changes whatever they may be can take their toll on anyone. It’s also good to let it out and talk too which is how I felt when my mom died after a long long battle with cancer. Not to sound trite, but at least there’s tapioca pudding. Tapioca is something I always loved as a child when my mom would make it just for me. Haven’t had it as an adult but I should give it another try again. Take care!

    2:23 pm  May 8th, 2010
  35. Laurie

    Each time I read your words, your writing, I get such pleasure. Thank you for that gift you give to me, and the thoughts you share in such a beautiful way. I wanted you to know that the time and effort, thought and care you put into the words you choose to write are very appreciated. Thank you so much.

    2:25 pm  May 8th, 2010
  36. Emily from ReadyToWait.com

    Just adding a big ditto to much of the above. Sounds this transition you are in the middle of will take some time and grieving. I have missed your blog posts. You have been an inspiration to me as someone who loves time in the kitchen as well as a blogger. So I send food-blog vibes of hope and newness to you.

    Can’t think of anything more comforting than pudding. This recipe looks perfect.

    3:51 pm  May 8th, 2010
  37. Deborah

    Can’t wait to try this recipe. And from another Fresnan, welcome back. I’m sorry that circumstances that brought you back here weren’t happy, but hope you’ll come to find, in time, contentment and peace. And eventually, a new life and new happiness.

    6:50 pm  May 8th, 2010
  38. Leslie

    Thank you for sharing…the recipe and the story. SO sorry to hear about your loss admist so many big changes. What a perfect time for comfort food, especially as a beautiful tribute to your Uncle Jim. Take care :)

    6:59 pm  May 8th, 2010
  39. Kas

    I’m so sorry to hear about your uncle. I always come to your site and just look at your pictures and recipes. I’m not much of a cook (mainly because I don’t have the patience), but I still love your site. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you during this rough time. <3

    11:40 pm  May 8th, 2010
  40. Claudine

    I just recently found your site. Sorry about your uncle.

    We call tapioca pudding by another name in South Africa – sago pudding. Real comfort food, add a couple of spoons of apricot jam (fine or chunky) and a handful of raisins and I am in heaven!

    6:55 am  May 9th, 2010
  41. susan j

    my best friend laurie died march 7 around the corner from my home of a brain aneurysm at the age of 43…leaving behind a husband, daughter 14 and son 16. I have not baked or cooked since that night…my family has been patiently eating ez foods like grilled cheese, and omelets. I LOVED to cook and always shared with laurie my new best thing i made…it just dodesn’t seem fun anymore without her. I saw your post and actually thought maybe this would be fun to do tonight….thank you!!

    12:38 pm  May 10th, 2010
  42. Lisa

    I love your blog and have missed you terribly. I am so sorry to hear you are going through so much. I have been in those very shoes and it is sooooo hard to start over. But, it can be done and YOU WILL do it. You have your family and if you have family, you have EVERYTHING! And Wow, just look at all the well wishers that have never even met you!. You matter so much to us. Just keep on cooking and blogging! It will all work out!

    2:55 pm  May 10th, 2010
  43. Susan

    Fresno? Sending these good vibes to you from Bakersfield, just down the road. Stopped here to eat at a Basque restaurant! Be well. And thanks for this delicious recipe. Will try it when I get back home; on the road from Mexico.

    9:09 pm  May 10th, 2010
  44. Jessica

    I just want to let you know, amongst all the others, that I really enjoy reading your words and learning from the skills you have in photography, cooking/baking, and writing. We met last year at IFBC, and although you may not remember me, I remember you. It takes a lot of different skills to be working in unison to run a food blog, especially when it is a one woman show. You have a great style and it really comes through in each post. I admire that. I understand what it feels like when life throws a wrench in the pipes. It really blows. I’ll be at IFBC again this year, it would be great to see you there if you can make it.

    7:29 am  May 11th, 2010
  45. Carly

    A beautiful, thoughtful post as always. Your words and cooking inspire! Keep your chin up!

    11:10 am  May 11th, 2010
  46. Sage & Style

    This recipe and post has brought back so many memories for me. Tapioca pudding is also my uncle’s favorite dessert and I used to help my grandmother make it from scratch when I young! I’m ashamed to say I buy the store bought version at Whole Foods but I will abstain from now on and make it. Such a lovely, reminiscent flavor.

    7:54 pm  May 11th, 2010
  47. The Teacher Cooks

    I have missed your blog! So sorry about your uncle and all that you are going through. Thanks for a nice recipe to remember him by.

    9:10 am  May 13th, 2010
  48. Around the Internet Kitchen: Herbs Gallore! | Macheesmo

    [...] Homemade Tapioca Pudding.  Tapioca pudding is one of my favorite things in the world.  It’s also one of those things that never dawned on me that I could probably easily make.  Man this looks good. (@ Pinch My Salt) [...]

    4:04 am  May 14th, 2010
  49. :)

    It’s nice that you are with your family and friends during this difficult time. Stay strong. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    2:09 am  May 16th, 2010
  50. Cheryl

    I was drooling over your tapioca post and came pretty darn close to licking the screen. I’ve always loved tapioca pudding. My aunt, who also has passed, would make it. I tried but was not able to get it right. I believed she used the minute tapioca. I never tried again until now. I followed your instructions except that I didn’t use the grated lemon peel. I am delighted with my pudding. I just spoke to my mom and told her I mastered tapioca pudding. I used two vanilla beans and it isn’t overpowering. I am waiting for it to chill. Would doing a double recipe be a problem?
    Thanks for the post.

    4:34 pm  May 18th, 2010
  51. 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
  52. Habermas

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

    8:11 pm  Jun 2nd, 2010
  53. 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
  54. 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
  55. 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
  56. 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
  57. 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
  58. 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
  59. 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
  60. 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
  61. 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
  62. 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
  63. 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
  64. 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
  65. 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
  66. 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
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