Perhaps, once as a child, you plunged your spoon into Tapioca Pudding expecting the smooth sensations of a vanilla pudding. Instead, you got a mouthful of squishiness from what looked like a bowl of fish eggs. Such an experience could leave anyone traumatized and wary of this dessert for years. If this rings true for you, maybe it’s time to give this forgotten treat another chance.
My mom made Tapioca Pudding every now and then, and I remember it as always being served warm. A survey published in 2003 by the British Broadcasting Corporation reported it topped the list of the most loathed of all English school lunch items. FHS never served it in its cafeteria, as far as I know, and few of today’s children have even heard of it. It was once fashionable in the United States back in the ‘30s, which likely explains why we were still having it here in Fredericksburg in the ‘50s. I always felt our family, and really our town, was living a decade or more behind the times. While it may have been loathed by some generations, Tapioca is now being celebrated by some chefs who intend to elevate it beyond the bowls of the milky goop we once knew.
Tapioca is made from the Cassava plant, a nutty-flavored, starchy root native to South America. Domesticated no more than 10,000 years ago in the wilds of Brazil, it found its way into Mayan cuisine a mere 1,400 years ago. There the Spanish considered the food dangerous, but the Portuguese settling into Brazil had no issue with introducing it into Africa. Today, 800 million people depend on Cassava as their primary food staple, and it is the third-largest source of carbohydrates in many developing nations. Nigeria and Thailand have become the world’s two largest exporters. The presence of cyanide within the plant remains an issue requiring that it be prepared properly prior to consumption.
Pudding was the most popular American dish made with this ingredient. It combined tapioca pearls with liquid to form a delicious, creamy mix. When cooked with milk it becomes translucent and jelly-like. A lot of kids developed an aversion to its gelatinous texture, perhaps being reminded of a bowl of spawning tadpoles. At its worst, it is a gelatinous, gluey custard and its appearance is the bane of generations of children. At its best, Tapioca Pudding is a simple, honest food, free of pretense and complicated cooking. Tradition dictates it be flavored only with sugar and vanilla.
The extra work in removing whole beans from its pods had long before been found to be worth the effort. According to the Minute Tapioca Pudding Company, it originated in Boston in 1894 in the home of Susan Stavers. It appears that one of her boarders, a sailor, had carried several Cassava roots home from his journey. Mrs. Stavers decided to make something of them, but when she served it, he complained that her presentation was coarse and lumpy. Nevertheless, she started a neighborhood business using ‘ground’ tapioca. It began to sell, and people liked its smooth, creamy texture—apparently ignoring its appearance – and, perhaps due to its uniqueness, a novel dessert was born.
This staple dessert went out of style and vogue around here in the 1970s – except maybe at Andy’s Diner. One important positive aspect of Tapioca Pudding is that it is gluten free. Some sources suggest that making the following recipes requires equal parts of patience, attentiveness, and top-notch ingredients. Others, that we should use a thick-bottomed pot to help prevent scorching. A double boiler, where recommended, should be used.
I did find one recipe by Mrs. William Weyrich in our Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book which includes wine – I found that very clever, along with two other interesting recipes to share.
Mrs. Wm. Weyrich’s Tapioca Wine Pudding*
½ cup tapioca
1 cup water
1 cup sweet syrup from canned peaches
1 cup diluted wine
2 tbls sugar
Mix all ingredients.
In a double boiler cook for 15 minutes or until clear.
Chill and serve immediately with sweetened whipped cream.
2 ½ cups whole milk
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
¼ cup sugar plus 1 tbls sugar
1 tbls light brown sugar
1 pinch of salt
¼ cup quick-cooking tapioca
½ vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise and seeds scraped out
½ cup heavy cream
½ tsp vanilla extract
Combine milk, eggs, sugars (excluding 1 tbls sugar), ¼ tsp salt, tapioca, and vanilla seeds and pod in a medium saucepan.
Allow to sit 5 minutes.
Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat.
Once boiling, stir constantly for 2 minutes.
Remove from heat and scrape pudding into a medium bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, at least 1 hour to 2 days.
Meanwhile, combine heavy cream, vanilla extract, remaining 1 tbls sugar, and pinch of salt in a mixer bowl.
Whisk at medium speed until the cream holds a soft peak.
Cover and refrigerate until needed.
When ready to serve, remove the vanilla pod from the pudding and discard.
Fold half the whipped cream into the pudding.
Divide the pudding into individual serving cups or bowls.
Top with remaining cream.
Tapioca Custard Pudding
1 pt. scalded milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/3 cup minute tapioca
½ cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbls butter
Combine tapioca and milk.
Cook in double boiler 30 minutes.
Add eggs to the sugar and salt.
Gradually pour on hot mixture.
Turn into a buttered pudding dish.
Add butter; put in pan of hot water.
Bake at 325ºF for 30 minutes.
Yields 6 servings.