Before winter takes hold of us here in the Northern US, I would like to savor a dish that is, in my opinion, a wonderful part of the American repertoire. Despite its deep roots in American cooking, it seems as if this dish has all but disappeared from our collective culinary consciousness. It is a traditional New England treat called Indian Pudding, so called because cornmeal was once known as Indian meal. It is a baked concoction of cornmeal, milk, and molasses that, while not the most attractive dish, makes for an outstanding fall dessert.
Variations of this recipe were published as early as 1796, in what is considered to be the first cookbook written by an American, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. Simmons offers the following recipes:
A Tasty Indian Pudding
No. 1 3 pints scalded milk, 7 spoons fine Indian meal, stir well together while hot, let stand till cooled; add 4 eggs, half pound raisins, 4 ounces butter, spice and sugar, bake 4 hours.
No. 2 3 pints scalded milk to one pint meal salted; cool, add 2 eggs, 4 ounces butter, sugar or molasses and spice sufficient: it will require two and half hours baking.
No. 3 Salt a pint of meal, wet with one quart milk, sweeten and put into a strong cloth, brass or bell metal vessel, stone or earthen pot, secure from wet and boil 12 hours.
Indian pudding is commonly thought to be an adaptation of English wheat-based puddings, but in which traditional ingredients were replaced with ones commonly available in America. Corn replaced wheat and molasses sugar. It is a nice example of the cultural melding and adaptation that was an inherent part of American culture from the beginning.
After browsing a number of recipes, I settled on the recipe below. I personally prefer less molasses than some recipes call for, and I replace some of it with milder brown sugar. I also like an assertive ginger flavor, but you can adjust the spices to your taste. Both the molasses and the caramelization from the long cooking time give it a rich brown color and toasty flavor. Served with whipped cream or ice cream, it is a true delight.
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup finely ground cornmeal
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice, or a few pinches of nutmeg and cinnamon
- 2 tsp ginger
Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter a small casserole dish.
In a medium pot, bring milk to a gentle simmer. Very slowly whisk in cornmeal, mixing constantly. Simmer very gently until mixture has thickened to the consistency of pancake batter. Remove from heat. Stir in the butter, brown sugar, molasses, salt, and spices until well blended. You can adjust the spices to your liking. In a small bowl, beat the eggs. Slowly whisk some of the hot pudding mixture to the beaten eggs, (this prevents the eggs from scrambling) then add the egg mixture back to the pot.
Pour mixture into the dish and bake about 1.5 hours, until brown and set. Let sit at least 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
I highly recommend, especially if this is your first time trying Indian pudding, not to skip the whipped cream, as it adds a lovely balance to the caramelized flavor.