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Homemade Tapioca Pudding

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.

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.

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.

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!

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