Tuesday, April 5, 2011
New England Grape-Nut Pudding (and how to scald milk!)
Just because I don't have a kitchen doesn't mean you shouldn't get recipes, so I've been saving this one for the past couple of weeks. Grape-nut pudding is a classic New England dessert composed of a rich, egg custard, lightly spiced with nutmeg, and layered with a 'magic' Grape-Nut crust - magic because it appears as the custard bakes and the cereal settles in the baking dish. This dessert is surprisingly simple to make and, with a few tweaks, can easily be elevated from a comfort food classic (see above) to an elegant entremet (below).
If Grape-Nut Pudding doesn't sound that appealing to you, I'd encourage you to put your reservations aside and give this dish a try. Sure, the cereal has something of a spartan reputation - it's a little low on sweetness and flavor, and each little box seems to last forever - but it's really transformed in this pudding. The recipe is also a great way to use up some of that never-ending cereal, which is what alerted me to the existence of Grape-Nut Pudding in the first place, as I cleaned out our cupboards in preparation for our cross-country move. For the nutrition nuts out there (myself included!), it's also a relatively low-calorie dessert and is high in protein thanks to all those lovely eggs.
By now, you know how much I love uncovering the history behind the foods I enjoy. Well, this one stumped me, but during my research I did learn a lot of fascinating little tidbits about Grape-Nuts cereal. The Wall Street Journal published an illuminating article a few years ago, delving into the process and people behind the cereal, as well as its ever-changing position in public opinion. Essentially, Grape-Nuts are malted bread crumbs, fashioned from wheat-and-barley loaves that are baked, shredded, dried and crushed. It's a lengthy process for so simple a result, but Grape-Nuts lovers will tell you the cereal isn't as simple as it appears. For most, it's as much about the texture (described as everything from 'crunchy' to 'concrete-y') as the taste ('malty', 'sweet', 'rich', 'beer-like').
Though I'm not a true 'Grape Nut,' I do enjoy the cereal, mostly because it feels healthy and because it reminds me of the deliciously sweet and sticky malt breads I ate as a child in England. It's a strongly nostalgic flavor, and I think that's the secret behind its longevity and behind the appeal of Grape Nut Pudding. Almost every recipe I uncovered mentioned some long-time family connection or an lengthy allegiance to a some New England restaurant or other; all provided small variations of the same basic dish, but since several referenced a recipe published years ago by Yankee Magazine, I decided to go back to this source.
I'd never made a custard before, but I was surprised at how simply everything came together. You don't need any fancy gadgets or techniques - just a bit of patience when scalding the milk and a pan or dish large enough to set up a water bath. I played around with a few flavor variations, for which I include the details below, but the pudding is just as delicious in its pure and unadulterated state.
New England Grape Nut Pudding
adapted from Yankee Magazine
4 cups whole milk, scalded OR 2 cups water plus 2 cups evaporated milk, scalded
1 cup original Grape-Nuts cereal (not Grape-Nuts Flakes)
4 large eggs
1/2 - 3/4 cup granulated sugar (your preference - I used just over 1/2 cup)
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Water for water bath
To scald milk: Scalded milk is milk brought to the verge of boiling. This technique is found in many older recipes, where it was used to destroy bacteria. This isn't necessary today, but scalded milk will make a difference to the texture of your custard. To make it, pour milk into a large saucepan and heat over medium heat until bubbles form against the edge of the pan and milk begins to froth lightly (if you have a candy thermometer, it should read about 180-185 ° F). Milk burns easily so be sure to stir constantly as the milk approaches boiling in order to prevent a skin from forming on the bottom of the pan. This step requires more patience than skill!
Heat oven to 350 ° F. Butter or spray a 2-quart casserole dish (or use small ramekins for individual portions). In a large mixing bowl, pour scalded milk over the Grape-Nuts and allow to sit about for 5 minutes. This softens the cereal.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, salt and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Add egg mixture to Grape-Nuts and stir until well blended. Pour into prepared casserole dish and top with the rest of the grated nutmeg. Place the casserole dish in a 9x13-inch pan, or a deep roasting pan, and set in the oven. Fill pan with a few inches of water - enough to reach just over half way up the sides of the casserole dish. Bake 45-60 minutes, until almost set in the center (a slight jiggle when gently shaken is fine). Individual ramekins will require shorter baking time. Allow to cool and serve with fresh fruit or whipped cream. Pudding will keep for a few days if covered and refrigerated.
A few notes: As you can see from the photos, I decided to have fun testing out some variations with a few individual portions. In the first, I omitted the nutmeg and added fresh blackberries before baking as normal. The berries made this dish much more elegant and almost clafoutis-like. I think this was my favorite version of all and you could probably try other varieties of fruit depending on what's in season and what you have available (I'd like to try a rhubarb version since I love, love, love rhubarb!).
The second variation was a chocolate toffee variety, made by adding cocoa powder and toffee coffee syrup to the unbaked custard. I stirred this in and then topped with a sprinkling of cocoa powder (again, no nutmeg) before popping it into the oven. This was much more 'grown-up' combination with a deeper, more complex flavor. Matt thought it tasted like coffee, but he liked the addition of the cocoa and agreed that it would make a pretty after-dinner treat for evening entertaining.
Of course, the original dessert was also delicious. The cereal formed a moist crust with a distinct layer of custard and the handsome sprinkle of nutmeg on top. I'd read of some problems with getting the layers to separate, but I think the scalding and the 5-minute rest period are important here. I cut my pudding into generous squares, but using individual ramekins makes serving and presentation even easier - just be sure to grease or spray them thoroughly to prevent sticking and be aware that the cooking time will be significantly reduced (I would check them, using the 'jiggle' test, after about 30 minutes).
This post is linked at:
33 Shades of Green: Tasty Tuesdays
Sweet As Sugar Cookies: Sweets For A Saturday