Custards and puddings are classic comfort foods, and who doesn’t need comfort these days? I’ve been craving a creamy pudding of vanilla and tapioca (extracted from cassava root) and decided to test two versions — one using milk and eggs and another that substitutes dairy-free milk and a cornstarch slurry as a thickener. Everyone who taste-tested preferred the flavor of the traditional custard-style version, but loved the coconut milk as an alternative for those avoiding dairy. If you prefer custard-style, just replace milk with dairy-free milk in the original egg version.
There are few ingredients enlisted, so use the best that you can get. For the dairy-free version, I used both Pacific Foods Coconut Milk and canned coconut cream (unsweetened). As to the tapioca itself, make sure to look for uncooked small or large pearl tapioca. I usually use Bob’s Red Mill all-natural small pearl tapioca. Large pearl tapioca works as well. Just make sure to avoid instant tapioca as it includes soy lecithin and makes for an oddly-textured pudding. Other tips to help you achieve tapioca pudding perfection:
- Use a thick, heavy-bottomed pot to help with even heat distribution and to avoid scorching. It’s also important to bring the temperature up slowly — to avoid scorching and scrambling the egg yolk as well as to allow the tapioca to cook as it comes to a boil.
- Stir constantly or as often as possible. Similar to risotto, once it reaches a certain point of doneness, you can reduce the temp and let it be for a bit without too much stirring. This will come after you’ve made it a few times.
- Some recipes call for whipping egg whites for a light fluffy texture, which is lovely but adds an extra step. This is for when you’re in the mood for a denser, good old-fashioned pudding, thick skin and all.
Classic creamy tapioca pudding
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 cups milk, divided
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Optional garnishes: ground cinnamon or nutmeg; fresh fruit
1. Pour one cup milk and 1/4 cup water into a medium-sized, thick-bottomed pot. Add tapioca and soak for one hour. Turn heat to medium-low and whisk in egg yolks, salt, sugar, (if you want sweeter, go for 1/3 cup) and remaining two cups milk. Cut vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds, using the tip of a knife, and add bean paste to the pot. If using extract, stir in at the very end.
2. Slowly bring the mixture to a very low boil, stirring constantly (a silicone spatula works well for this); this should take 10 to 15 minutes. Once it comes to a low boil, reduce heat and let mixture return to a low simmer (a few lazy bubbles now and then); keep stirring and cooking at this temp until tapioca is fully cooked, another 20 minutes or so. BUT keep in mind that depending on the tapioca and differences in heat sources, the time will differ. The tapioca will tell you when it’s ready — the beads will swell up and become almost entirely translucent. The eggs will thicken as well — keep tasting and assessing and keep stirring so it doesn’t scorch. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. This is best served warm but also good at room temp.
Dairy-free tapioca pudding
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 cups coconut milk or almond milk, divided (I used Pacific Foods organic coconut milk)
1/3 cup small tapioca pearls
1 (13.5-to-14-ounce can) coconut cream or milk, shaken (unsweetened)
1/4 to 1/3 cup white sugar, brown sugar, or honey
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon salt
Optional garnishes: toasted coconut flakes; fresh mango or kiwi; toasted sesame seeds
1. Place the tapioca pearls and one cup dairy-free milk in a medium-sized, thick-bottomed pot and let soak one hour. Add the remaining cup of milk and warm the tapioca milk mixture over medium heat; stir constantly for 10 minutes. When pudding comes to a low boil, add canned coconut cream and sugar, and cook, stirring constantly, 10 to 12 minutes, making sure to keep an eye on temperature so as not to scorch the milk. The tapioca will tell you when it’s ready — the beads will swell up and become almost entirely translucent. Add cornstarch-water mixture and salt and cook, stirring for another 5 minutes. Cool slightly and eat warm sprinkled with toasted coconut and/or fresh mango or kiwi.