Chocolate pudding was a big part of my dessert repertoire, if you could call it that, when I was in elementary school. I’d open up a package of chocolate pudding mix, follow the instructions on the box, and then refrigerate the pudding until set. Sometimes it would develop a skin on top, which I secretly liked to eat. I also liked that my mom trusted me enough to make pudding by myself. But as I got older and consequently more cavalier in the kitchen, I forgot all about pudding.
Until recently. Prompted by nostalgia, a sweet tooth, and limited resources in the pantry, I returned to making pudding. I’ve had a box of tapioca for a while, mainly for adding to the filling of summer fruit pies. The box has a simple recipe for tapioca pudding, and after a quick glance I remembered how easy it is to make. And so the experiments began.
Tapioca itself is a tasteless root starch. Tapioca maltodextrin is the high-tech version of the home staple. A powdery modified form of tapioca, it is used to stabilize fats. Mix tapioca maltodextrin with some olive oil, for instance, and you have powdered olive oil. While this doesn’t have any practical applications in a home kitchen, it’s a neat trick for chefs. When served with a dessert, for instance, the grassy flavors of olive oil slowly release on your tongue instead of overwhelming the plate with a savory oil slick.
But I digress. My pudding experiments did not use tapioca maltodextrin. With plain, old tapioca already on hand, all I needed was some sugar, vanilla, an egg, and some milk. I don’t keep regular milk in the refrigerator any more, but I happened to have a box of almond milk.
In his 2010 book Keys to Good Cooking: A guide to Making the Best of Foods, food scientist Harold McGee describes puddings as “dense, moist dishes thickened with grains (rice), grain flours, or starch (cornstarch, tapioca).” He writes that the key to a successful rendition is to have enough liquid to hydrate the thickener and enough sugar and fat to ensure the pudding is moist. So as long as the tapioca did its job, I figured that the almond milk shouldn’t prevent the pudding from setting.
Then I started to think about chocolate pudding, always the preferred favorite in my family. I decided to turn the regular tapioca pudding into a chocolate tapioca pudding with cocoa powder, which I already had on hand. Then I decided to add a bit of cinnamon and a dash of cayenne to give it a mild, Mexican-chocolate accent.
Mexican chocolate tapioca pudding has a few advantages over classic vanilla tapioca. For the people who can’t stand the look of tapioca specks, they can be assured that the specks are much less visible in chocolate form. Making it mildly spiced helped minimize the connection of pudding as a food you eat only when ill. If everything worked, I’d have a dairy-free, gluten-free, and inexpensive chocolate dessert on my hands. Not decadent enough for a celebration, but certainly flavorful enough for a weeknight treat.
It worked. After a few renditions, I upped the amount of cocoa powder and decreased the amount of cinnamon. I also found I liked the mild flavor of the almond milk—a rice-milk version also turned out fine, but it wasn’t a favorite. I also made a version with only two tablespoons of tapioca, and it also set, yielding a softer, smoother texture, which might appeal to those who aren’t a fan of tapioca texture.
Before adding the egg and heating the pudding, I let the pudding base soak for five minutes. At this point, you could taste it and see if you’d prefer more cinnamon, sugar, or cayenne. If you prefer regular milk, use it instead of the almond milk. To dress the pudding up, dust the top with cocoa powder.
Makes four 4-ounce servings
3 tablespoons/22 grams tapioca
3 tablespoons/30 grams sugar
2 tablespoons/10 grams unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 generous pinch cayenne
1 pinch salt
2 cups/475 grams almond milk
1 teaspoon/3 grams vanilla
1 large egg
1. In a pot, whisk together the tapioca and sugar. Sift the cocoa powder into the pot, then season with the cinnamon, cayenne, and salt. Pour in the almond milk and vanilla and let sit for 5 minutes.
2. Whisk in the egg well, then gradually heat the pudding, whisking frequently, until it begins to boil, 4-5 minutes. Pour the pudding into 4 (4-ounce) ramekins and refrigerate, uncovered, for 1 hour for a soft set, 2 or more for a firmer pudding. Once completely cool, cover the ramekins with plastic wrap.