by Ruth Major
I searched for forty years for that perfect tapioca pudding – hot, rich, sweet. The boxed tapioca doesn’t make it, and those little plastic containers encased in cardboard don’t meet the standard either. I’ve tried tapioca puddings from Furr’s cafeteria in Waco, Texas, to Howard Johnson’s along many highways, and the Hungry Farmer twenty years ago in Boulder.
When our girl and boy were little I would make the pudding from scratch – with tapioca beads straight from the box. I thought it was okay, but not quite right. Suzie would say, “Yuk, it’s lumpy.” Bob would point out how much the cooked tapioca looked like fish eyes. “Mom, it’s gross!” Finally, one day I decided to share my memories in other ways.
I remember the large kitchen in our old farmhouse. I remember the black wood stove and eventually the arrival of a stove that took wood in one side and used gas in the other. Animals were not allowed in our house, except for Rover once in a while on a bitter upstate New York night. “Go lay down behind the stove, Rover,” Pop would say. Rover was happy to be warm and quiet.
Ma would be hustling about, her print apron worn with many washings and her face alight. She’d beat some fresh eggs. Then sugar would cascade down into the thick yellow mixture, white as the froth of a heavy waterfall. Sometimes she’d beat egg whites and yolks separately if she had time and the inclination for extra lightness. I liked it heavy, but I never told her. Our milk separated in the refrigerator, with several inches of cream at the top. She’d use the richest for this treat.
Ma had a way with stirring. The big wooden spoon beat out a steady whack, whack, whack. The strong smell of pure vanilla as it hit the hot mixture would alert me that it was time! Ma would judge it finished, and I’d already be at her side reaching upward with a cup and a spoon waiting to give it a try.
Yesterday I found a recipe on the internet that matched my memories (with slight modifications). I believe it will “just hit the spot,” as Ma would all too frequently say.
• 1/2 cup small pearl tapioca* (you can usually find it in the baking section of the grocery store; do not use instant tapioca)
• 3 cups milk (Ma used cream)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 2 eggs (Ma used more}
• 1/2 cup of sugar (Ma used much more)
• 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla (Ma would use 1 whole teaspoon I am sure)
Combine tapioca, milk, and salt in 1 1/2 quart pan on medium high heat. Stir constantly until boiling. Simmer 5 minutes uncovered at the lowest possible heat, adding sugar gradually (oh, that flow!).
Beat eggs in a separate bowl. Mix in some of the hot tapioca very slowly to equalize the temperature of the two mixtures (to avoid curdling).
Add egg/tapioca mixture to pan with rest of tapioca. Slowly bring mixture barely to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and stir several minutes at a low simmer, stirring constantly until you get a nice thick pudding consistency. Cool 15 minutes. (Ma didn′t wait.) Add vanilla. Serve either warm or chilled.
Note: If you want to make a more light and fluffy, but still rich, tapioca pudding, separate the eggs. Use the egg yolks to stir in first to the pan with the tapioca. Once the pudding has become nice and thick, beat the egg whites in a separate bowl to soft peaks. Remove the pan of tapioca pudding from the stove, fold in the beaten egg whites into the pudding.
*Look at the instructions on the package of tapioca that you buy. Some small pearl tapioca requires overnight soaking in water. If your package has that requirement, reduce the milk in the recipe to 2 1/2 cups from 3 cups. [I don′t think Ma looked or soaked, but it seems like a good idea.