There was a time in my life when I made a stand for custard over pudding.
Puddings, I decided, were temperamental things, rife with the potential for curdled eggs, grittiness from too much cornstarch or a soupy texture.
Custards, like French pots de crème or Italian budini, were more sophisticated and reliable. They can be baked slowly in a water bath so the eggs don’t curdle, and emerge silky and dense without any cornstarch to grit things up.
After years of persistent custard-making, though, it occurred to me that, by banishing pudding, I was missing out on pudding skin. And as the pandemic wore on and my appetite for creamy comfort food grew, a batch of old-fashioned butterscotch pudding — covered with a sticky, stretchy skin — was exactly what I was craving.
Custards can form skins, too, a result of heating the milk. But puddings, which need to be cooked uncovered at a higher temperature, can grow thicker skins. And these are much more satisfying to a pudding-skin lover like myself.
(A note to skin haters: You can prevent it by pressing a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap directly on the pudding or custard surface as it cools.)
As for the temperamental nature of cornstarch puddings, there are some ways to keep the pitfalls at bay.
The first is to activate the cornstarch by making sure to bring the pudding mixture to a full, bubble-popping boil. The second is to let the pudding cook, stirring, until it thickens enough to mound on the spoon before you take it off the heat. This ensures that it will set properly.
All this boiling does increase the risk of curdling the egg yolks. The easiest fix is to simply strain the mixture after cooking; any coagulated bits of egg will be left in the sieve.
And using a ratio of 1 tablespoon cornstarch for every cup of milk or cream keeps things smooth and free of grit.
The flavor of butterscotch pudding comes from dark brown sugar that’s been caramelized in butter and rounded out with vanilla. I also like to spike the mixture with a little bourbon for depth, but you could also tip in Scotch for a savory smokiness, and as a nod to the name.
With or without the booze, a bowl of homemade butterscotch pudding is about as soothing as dessert gets, a sweet, creamy comfort to any pandemic-weary soul.