My first bite of Indian pudding in several decades took me right back to third grade, Mrs. Cheney’s class in approximately mid-November 1983. Thanksgiving in New England, with Plimoth Plantation and Plymouth Rock just down the road, was a big deal– I remember what seemed like weeks of lesson plans centering on the first Thanksgiving. My favorite day (not surprising) was when we discussed what the Pilgrims and Indians may have eaten at that first dinner and sampled some of the traditional foods. I remember sitting at my desk, possibly with a paper hat or headband on my head, stringing cranberries and popcorn, and being presented with a little paper bowl of what looked like pudding but smelled like my Mom’s gingerbread. It was confusing, because pudding to me meant chocolate or butterscotch, and this was clearly neither of those flavors. A tentative bite or two and I was solidly on board with what I now know was Indian pudding. I won’t be surprised if you don’t know what I’m talking about; Indian pudding is relatively unknown outside of New England. I volunteer to lead the charge that brings Indian pudding to tables across the nation.
Indian pudding is a baked custard that really is similar to gingerbread in aroma and taste, to pumpkin pie in consistency. The name comes from the term “Indian meal”, as cornmeal was called at one time; cornmeal is a surprising, perhaps, but vital component, lending a subtle but characteristic texture to the otherwise smooth custard. The other definitive ingredient is molasses: thick and syrupy, responsible for the distinct flavor and beautiful color of the dessert. Indian pudding is a humble dessert, built around ingredients that would have been more readily available in early New England than the granulated sugar and wheat flour that are the base of so many modern desserts. (The small amounts of flour and sugar here are almost surely modern additions to the traditional recipe.) It’s very easy to imagine a similar dish, sweetened with molasses and thickened with corn meal, gracing the first Thanksgiving table.
If you’re looking for a new dessert to try, Indian pudding is a good choice for lovers of spiced desserts like gingerbread or molasses bread, custards like pumpkin or custard pie. Fans of anadama bread will recognize the combination of molasses and cornmeal. Maybe you’re like me, with a vague memory of a bite when you were a child, eager to see if it tastes like you remember. I’d love to hear whether you’ve tried Indian pudding before and whether you still make it today.
Indian Pudding (recipe adapted from Simply Recipes)
- 6 c. whole milk
- 8 T. unsalted butter
- 1/2 c. fine yellow cornmeal
- 1/4 c. white flour
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 c. molasses (not blackstrap)
- 3 large eggs
- 1/3 c. sugar
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1/3 c. golden raisins (optional)
- whipped cream or vanilla ice cream to serve
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
To a large saucepan on medium heat, add the milk and butter. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and the milk begins to steam; you don’t quite want a boil. Stir more after the butter melts so the milk doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan.
While the milk heats, in a medium bowl, sift together the cornmeal, flour and salt. Stir in the molasses until you have a thick, light brown paste. Spoon in warm milk, a few tablespoons at a time, and stir until the molasses mixture is thin and pourable (about 1/2 – 2/3 c. milk) and then pour the thinned mixture into the saucepan with the milk and butter. Continue to heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens noticeably. Remove from the heat.
In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Temper the eggs by whisking in a steady, slow drizzle of hot custard (about 1/3 c.) and then adding the heated, thinned egg mixture to the custard, whisking constantly. Stir in the cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins, if using, and pour the custard into a shallow 2 1/2 qt. casserole dish. A 9″ x 13″ baking pan will also work. Bake for 2 hours.
It can be hard to tell when Indian pudding is done because the clean knife trick doesn’t always work. The custard will jiggle slightly near the center, less around the edges. It should not “roll” in waves. I know. It’s hard to describe, too. If you have any concerns, you can continue baking, checking every 10 mins., for another 30 mins.
Remove the Indian pudding from the oven and cool to room temperature on a wire rack; then, cover with foil or plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Warm to room temperature before serving for optimal flavor. I always serve Indian pudding with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, often with a sprinkle of extra cinnamon. I recently discovered that a spoonful of custard is awfully nice in a bowl with a splash of eggnog.