When I was small pudding came in plastic tubs, butterscotch or vanilla or chocolate, or multilayered chocolate and vanilla. They came in packs of six, held together by a cardboard holder. At lunch I would peel back the foil cover, lick the bit of pudding off the lid, eat the rest bit by bit, enjoying the smooth coolness of each spoonful. I am not sure which I loved most, the caramel sweetness of butterscotch, the soft blandness of vanilla, the darkness of chocolate, or the latter two swirled together, light and dark. Sometimes in the school cafeteria there would be pudding for dessert, dolloped in shallow beige plastic dishes, still tasting the same as the kind that came in plastic tubs. Instant pudding, always the same, which is part of its charm.
Much later, I found a recipe for chocolate cream pie in Gourmet magazine, with a crust of crushed chocolate wafers and a drift of softly whipped cream on top. Ignoring the crust and the whipped cream topping, I had all the ingredients for the pudding - there was bittersweet chocolate in the pantry and eggs and milk in the fridge and cornstarch in the spice drawer. Egg yolks were beaten with sugar and cornstarch and milk, the mixture all brought to a simmer and cooked over a low flame; once it thickened the melted chocolate would be mixed in, and everything gently pushed through a sieve to make sure that there were no lumps. Easy as falling off a chair.
I would make the pudding whenever I had a craving for something chocolate but didn't feel like baking - it was merely a few ingredients stirred together and cooked on the stove and left to cool and thicken in the fridge. I experimented with different brands of chocolate and varying percentages of cocoa content, from 100% Scharffen Berger to 61% Valhrona and just about everything in between. The recipe was easy to halve, so if I happened to have one small bar lying around it was enough to knock up a bit of pudding to eat with my elbows on the kitchen table while watching tv after dinner.
It is the Thursday of a long week, my throat is sore and I am in need of comfort. Time for chocolate pudding. There are bittersweet chocolate chips in the cupboard; no need to chop up a bar of chocolate with a serrated knife. I have, as usual, eggs and milk; it is the work of a few minutes to stir everything together in a small pan on the stove, to measure out chocolate chips in a bowl, to splash a bit of Grand Marnier into the pudding and whisk it in, a hint of orange perfuming the dark chocolate. The recipe is for a pudding filling, as for pie, so it is stiffer than pudding for eating, so I cut back on the cornstarch, trying something different. (Which is what cooking is all about).
Unlike the pudding that comes from a plastic tub at the supermarket or from a box mix, my chocolate pudding is never the same. It changes depending on the kind of chocolate I use, whether I have cut back on sugar or not, whether I have cut back on cornstarch or not, whether I have splashed in a bit of rum or Grand Marnier or perhaps Amaretto. Once I put too little cornstarch in and it became like a thick chocolate soup; another time I turned my attention away for a bit too long and it became a trifle lumpy. Never mind. I'll get it right, someday.