Warm, Comforting Indian Pudding

Unlovely, but so tasty.

One upside to this blast of cold air we’ve been hit with is that molasses-y, soft, warm Indian pudding starts tasting extra good, and besides, my wood-burning kitchen stove keeps part of the house warm at the same time that its maintains an ideal low oven heat to bake the pudding for the long time that the recipe requires. Most folks are going to have to burn a little gas or electricity to make Indian pudding, and if they are smart, they’ll tuck a pot of baked beans in at the same time and maybe some ham to make a whole meal at once.

Indian pudding came up at Newport Cultural Center when I was there for a book talk at the end of September. We were all discussing favorite old-fashioned dishes, and one of the women there asked me if I had a good Indian pudding recipe. Oddly, I had not included one in Maine Home Cooking, and I don’t think I have run one here in this column before. I promised myself I would do that, and I have been looking through my old Rebekah’s cookbooks, and dear old Marjorie Standish’s and Brownie Schrumpf’s cookbooks to see what they say.

I saw recipes with eggs in them, others without eggs; one quart of milk and a quarter cup of cornmeal; two quarts of milk and one cup of meal, some with spices, some without; some with flour even. I even tried a recipe with eggs in it, but the result seemed no different than my old favorite based on a Fanny Farmer recipe that I have used for years. I have always preferred the kind of Indian pudding that separates, or wheys in baking; otherwise, in my opinion, all you have is cornmeal mush sweetened with molasses.

Indian pudding, by the way, got its name from the colonists’ habit of referring to maize, or cornmeal as “Indian” since Englsih colonists used their word “corn” to refer to wheat. When they said “Indian corn” they were actually saying “the Indians’ grain.” Indian puddings were colonial America’s answer to milk-based grain puddings made in England in the early 1700s. We substituted maize meal for wheat meal, sweetened it with molasses instead of sugar.

As far as I can tell, baking Indian pudding is really about evaporating liquid out of milk. The oldest recipes from New England typically call for one quart of milk, seven large spoons full of cornmeal, and molasses to sweeten. Bake and bake and bake until it looks curdled and then eat it. With ice cream or a dribble of cream or whipped cream.

It’s a pity this stuff seldom shows up in restaurants any more, but I think most pastry chef eschew it because, at best, it looks awfully dumpy in a bowl. You can still buy it canned but you have to look for it in specialty stores or in the Maine-made section of grocery stores.

If you are an Indian pudding novice, you might wonder at the instructions to “pour over” the cold milk at the end of the assembly process. Of course, you can’t actually pour milk over without it mixing in a little. Basically, it means to add milk slowly enough not to agitate the whole mess. You will use a whole quart of milk, and I recommend whole milk, not 2% or 1%. You need some solids in this recipe.

Here is my favorite recipe, and if you have a different one, I’d love to see it, and I’d share it here.

Indian Pudding

2 cups of milk

¼ cup of cornmeal

¼ cup cold milk

½ cup molasses

¼ cup brown sugar

A pinch of salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

2 tablespoons butter

1 ¾ cup milk

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Scald two cups of milk in a heavy pan by heating it until you see bubbles around the edge of pan. Mix the cornmeal and a quarter cup of cold milk together and pour into the hot milk. Cook together, stirring frequently, until it thickens slightly. Add the molasses, sugar, salt and spices, and butter, which will melt, and stir until it is well mixed. Pour into a greased baking dish ( I use a nine-by-thirteen glass baking dish.) Gently add the remaining cup and three quarters of cold milk. Bake for three hours. Let stand a while before serving.

Makes six to eight servings.

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About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.