I have nothing poignant to say here. I have no in depth analysis of anything, no insight into some aspect of our nature as it relates to food, no criticism or critique on some culinary revolution, evolution or devolution. Though I can’t say that I ever really do. But I can certainly say that I don’t have any of that now—nothing to say. Nothing, that is, except this: Salted. Caramel. Pudding.
I say this in regards to “soft puddings”—nothing that’s baked in a water bath and turned over onto a serving plate—but I know there’s a level of snobbery towards them; it’s either too viscously plastic-like, or it’s just nothing that special. I’d have to say that’s pretty accurate for the most part. Instant puddings and stovetop mixes have this amazing ability to have a texture like overcooked egg whites that you’ve chewed so much they’ve finally liquidated in your mouth. But good pudding is nothing to stick your nose up at. It should be silken and smooth like a rich custard, less the egginess, and with a more stable structure. I wouldn’t dream of a world without custard but I think, as a dessert all its own, I’d rather have a good pudding. What’s even better about puddings is that they’re quicker to cook, there’s no stress of “curdling” it by overcooking the egg yolks and you probably have everything you need on hand already.
And this is salted caramel pudding. Who doesn’t love salted caramel? I remember reading an article in the New York Times about the sudden influx of salted caramel in our American culinary canon. It starts, as do most food trends, at high-end restaurants and works its way through the market until it shows up on a McDonald’s menu. It’s not necessarily about the cheapening or degradation of a foodstuff—it’s about its assimilation into our culture. And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding that the saline spike of salt is the perfect companion for the smoky-sweet caramel. (Side note—I read or heard somewhere that the saying “the proof is in the pudding” originated as something like “the proof of the pudding is in eating it”. I don’t remember whether it was initially meant to be taken literal or proverbial but…). What sets this over the edge for me is sprinkling crispy shards of sea salt flakes over the top of the pudding itself rather than salting the actual pudding itself (though I do, slightly). Soft and luxurious pudding spiked with tiny, salty blades that crunch under your teeth—the only thing that makes this better is eating it in front of the TV in bed.
Oh, I forgot to mention: this serves one (that last comment would have been weird if this served six and you all had to get in bed to eat). I don’t mean this in my usual “makes 2, but serves 1” sort of way. This serves me and only me. Or you and only you. You could certainly increase the quantities to serve more, and the math would be fairly simple, but I prefer to keep this all to myself. So many people veer from cooking for one because they think it’s too much trouble, especially dessert, but I have to disagree. I don’t think it matters whether you’re on your own for tonight only or not—if there is ever a time to “bother” with cooking for yourself it’s dessert. It does require some forethought because it needs a few hours to chill and firm up in the fridge. If I know I’m going to have an evening for myself that day I make this up really quick in the morning before I go to work; not only is it ready for me when I get home but I also get a certain smug satisfaction throughout the day just knowing what’s waiting for me.
So, to make this solitary indulgence swirl together 2 tablespoons of white sugar with 1 tablespoon of water in a medium saucepan until all the grains of sugar are wet. Don’t stir with a spoon or anything yet because this develops crystals in the caramel. Bring this to a gentle boil over medium heat and keep it there for 5 – 7 minutes, until it turns a golden amber color.
Once it has darkened add a heaping t-spoon of brown sugar, swirl quickly (but carefully—it’s extremely hot) to just to combine.
Immediately whisk in the half and half. Odds are the caramel will seize and harden like rock candy by the shock from the cold half and half. You could previously warm the half and half to prevent this but, frankly, that adds another step. The caramel will melt back down into the half and half anyway so why make more work for yourself? Trust me.
Also, I think half and half works best. Heavy cream makes it too thick and milk, even full fat, doesn’t give you the right level of lush.
Take a little of the liquid from the pan (about ¼ cup or so) and slowly pour it into a small dish with some cornstarch, whisking it into a smooth and pourable paste.
Once the pudding base is at a gentle bubble, slowly pour in the cornstarch slurry, briskly whisking the base all the while to prevent lumps. Let it bubble for just a few seconds longer before turning the heat to low, simmering and whisking until its very thick—just about a minute or two.
Shut off the heat, whisk in a little bit of butter, vanilla and the smallest pinch of kosher salt and pour into your serving glass. Let it cool down a bit before you cover it with plastic wrap (directly on the surface to prevent that dreaded skin from forming) and stash it in the fridge for at least 4 hours to chill and firm up.
When you’re ready to eat all you have to do is unveil it from its plastic wrap slumber, sprinkle generously with sea salt flakes and indulge—in bed or not.