Unlike some (all) the other members of my tiny family, I’m not really a dessert person. After a tasty meal, I usually like a nice seasonal beverage and maybe a square or two of extremely dark chocolate, rather than a bowl of sugar. I do have a few exceptions to this preference, and one of them is pudding. More specifically, “purin” (プリン), the Japanese version of flan or creme caramel.
It would seem like there’s really no good reason other than nostalgia for me to like this dessert. I don’t really like sweet things, and pudding is a jar of cream and sugar. I generally dislike caramel, and avoid it in pretty much all of its non-pudding forms. But pudding is surprisingly not overpoweringly sweet, especially when I can leave out some of the sugar, and the caramel is more bitter and liquidy than the cloying, gooey stuff you find in a candy bar. Also, yes, it makes me nostalgic for little shops in Japan that serve impossibly perfect tiny jars of pudding.
So, this was one of the first things I wanted to learn to make once I had more time for cooking. But I didn’t realize just how much trial and error was going to be involved. (The biggest problem with all the trial and error was not the dozens of puddings we got to eat, but the number of stupid eggs I had to crack; I have probably cracked 50 eggs already this year, and I dropped a piece of shell into approximately 48 of them.)
The first few times I tried to make it, I ended up with something that was… fine? I guess? It was pudding, but it was much more firm than I wanted it to be. I was making it right(ish), but most of the recipes I found seemed to be designed to produce a relatively firm pudding that’s meant to be served on a plate. You steam it in a little ramekin, then turn it upside-down on a plate. Which is indeed the classic pudding, but not what I wanted. I wanted the aforementioned impossibly perfect tiny jars full of very soft custard.
It turns out that pudding is more complicated than I thought. The type of pudding that we’re making is steamed pudding (蒸しプリン), as opposed to gelatin pudding (ゼラチンプリン), the difference being that steamed pudding uses only eggs for thickening, as opposed to gelatin. (There is also baked pudding (焼きプリン), but according to a website that actually exists called puddinglaboratory.jp, this is pretty much a sub-type of steamed pudding.) In any case, poking around on Japanese recipe sites described the one that I had been making as “old-style firm pudding” (昔ながらの固めのプリン) and the one that I wanted as “creamy, smooth pudding” (とろーりなめらかプリン).
Fortunately, pudding doesn’t have a lot of ingredients — basically milk, eggs, and sugar — so it wasn’t too hard to figure out what was going on. A lot of the recipes for creamy puddings seemed to be using only egg yolks, or at least a mix of some whole eggs and some yolks. And, indeed, the American Egg Board says that, “the proteins in egg products, specifically in the whites, assist with adhesion and ingredient binding.” Clearly, there was too much adhesion and ingredient binding in my pudding. So I cracked open some more eggs, picked out some more bits of shell, and tried a pudding science experiment. I made three jars; one with only yolks, one with two yolks and one whole egg, and one with one yolk and two whole eggs. And, indeed, the one with yolks only was darker (richer) and creamier, almost liquid, which is exactly what I wanted.
That left just the caramel sauce. Oh, that should be easy, he thought. Wrongly. Caramel is made by boiling plain old white sugar in a little bit of water, over a low heat, for quite a while. Eventually it thickens, then turns golden, then turns dark brown, then turns into a crusty burnt mess stuck to the bottom of your pan. The required technique is to throw some hot water into the pan right around “turns dark brown,” swirl it around, and then quickly pour it into the jars before the caramel hardens. It’s easy to get it into the bottom of the jars by pouring it out a bit early, but then it’s not quite caramelized and doesn’t have the expected slightly bitter taste. But if the caramel is too concentrated or you don’t add enough water, it can stick to the bottom of the jar. All of which happened to me.
But eventually, I figured out a recipe that works. Here it is.
RECIPE (for three 150ml jars)
- 3 glass jars — Really, these should be probably be heat-resistant glass, but I’ve just been using normal glass jars that used to contain fancy yogurt. Since you heat up the jars slowly, they’re not really in danger of exploding. Use whatever size jars you want, mine are 150ml which is maybe a bit large, but it’s what I’ve got.
- 240ml whole milk — One US cup.
- 48ml heavy cream — About three tablespoons. A lot of recipes just use milk, so you could probably just replace this with milk if you don’t have any cream.
- 3 egg yolks — Replace egg yolks with whole eggs to get a firmer pudding. The more egg whites you use the firmer the pudding will be. 2 yolks + 1 whole egg was also nice.
- 20-30g white sugar — Depending on how sweet you want it. A “normal” pudding would be 30g or more, I’ve been pretty happy with 25g.
- A couple drops vanilla extract — I didn’t want to buy expensive vanilla extract while I was experimenting, so I substituted a few grams of sugar for German vanilla sugar. You can also leave this out entirely.
- 80g white sugar — For the caramel sauce.
- 2tbsp water — For the caramel sauce.
- 2tbsp very hot water — For getting the caramel sauce out of the pan.
- Put the 80g sugar and 2tbsp of water for the caramel in a saucepan and turn onto medium-low heat. Resist the temptation to stir it.
- Once the water has soaked through and it’s started to cook, it’ll be a little lighter color. Swirl the saucepan around a bit to make sure there’s no clumps, but still don’t stir it. Wait for it to boil. You’ll see little bubbles that look kind of like crystals exploding.
- Eventually it’ll turn golden, then brown. It’ll take a while to cook, but don’t wander away and do something else, because it burns very quickly and then you’ll have to start over.
- Once it’s a darkish brown, pour in your 2tbsp of hot water, swirl the whole thing around quickly, and then pour it into the jars before it hardens.
- Mix the milk and cream and warm it up on the stove. Not too much, just until it feels quite hot when you touch it (around 50c/120f). Definitely don’t let it boil.
- While the milk is warming up, separate the three egg yolks and add them to a bowl with the sugar and vanilla.
- When the milk is warm, pour that into the bowl and mix well.
- Pour the mixture from the bowl through a strainer into the jars. The strainer will remove any clumpy bits and help make the pudding smooth.
- Place the three jars into a saucepan and add water. The water should be about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the jars.
- Put the jar-containing saucepan on the stove and heat. You don’t want the water to boil, otherwise your puddings will be overcooked. Once it’s getting close to boiling (85c/185f, if you want to measure) turn the heat down to very low and put a lid-wrapped-in-a-tea-towel on it. The tea towel is to prevent liquid from dripping off the bottom of the lid into the puddings.
- Let it cook for about 6 minutes, maybe a little more or a little less depending on the size of your jars.
- Don’t take off the lid! Move the pot off the heat and let it sit for another 6-ish minutes. You may have to play with the cooking and resting times a bit to get proper, not over-cooked pudding. Here’s an example of one I overcooked pretty severely. Note all those little bubbles on the side of the jar… those aren’t supposed to be there.
- Take the lid off and carefully remove the jars. Let them sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes until they’ve cooled down.
- Put saran wrap or, I don’t know, some kind of decorative cloth or whatever on top. Seal with a rubber band or attractive string and put in the fridge for a few hours.
Mix up the caramel sauce and custard and eat it directly from the jar with a tiny spoon. Or, if you’re three, eat it veeery carefully to avoid the bitter caramel sauce entirely and request an entirely new pudding if you accidentally get caramel on your spoon. You can put some whipped cream or decorative fruit on top if you want.
- Feb 8, 2019: Replaced pictures. Also updated the instructions for the caramel sauce, adding more water at the beginning (+0.5tbsp).