Puddings are a kinder, gentler dessert. They are prepared in an unhurried manner and eaten with a soothing sense of nostalgia.
The creamy texture, wholesome ingredients and uncomplicated flavors add up to the definitive comfort food.
"Everyone likes to go back to the things that remind them of childhood," says dessert expert Linda Zimmerman. "We all get a little tired of fussy foods."
Fanciful desserts have come and gone, but like other traditional fare, pudding is back in fashion. Pudding has even found its way onto chic restaurant menus.
In her book, "Puddings, Custards and Flans" (Clarkson Potter, $10.95), Ms. Zimmerman outlines the simple techniques for a variety of puddings. Even a novice can make bread pudding, she assures. Baked custards and steamed puddings require a water bath, but the preparation is a snap.
Although eggs and cream are the expected ingredients for puddings, recipes can be adapted for those who are watching their diet.
This category can include bread puddings, rice puddings and the Yankee favorite, Indian pudding. Ingredients are combined in a bowl, poured into a buttered baking dish and baked . These forgiving recipes can be altered depending on what's in the pantry -- French bread, croissants, and the like -- but Ms. &L Zimmerman keeps an eye on proportion. Bread and rice soak up only so much liquid, no matter how long the pudding cooks.
Custards can be prepared over the stove or in the oven. Generally, stirred or "boiled" custards are soft, flowing affairs to use as sauces. Firmer baked custards are prepared in a water bath in the oven.
In either case, the ratio of eggs and milk is crucial, so follow recipes closely. Custards bake more evenly in individual serving dishes. Water should remain halfway up the side of the cups. Keep a kettle of water simmering to replenish the water bath during cooking.
To test a baked custard for doneness, insert a knife just off the custard's center. If it comes out clean, the custard is done. Because the custard continues to cook outside the oven, the true center will firm up as it cools. Be careful not to overcook.
Ms. Zimmerman recommends removing the custard cups promptly from the water bath and cooling them on a rack to room temperature. They can then be refrigerated.
These beautiful molded puddings are the least familiar to most home cooks, but they are surprisingly simple and make a dramatic presentation. Best yet, they can be made in advance and frozen.
Pudding molds for steaming are available at reasonable cost in kitchen shops. A coffee can with a foil lid can substitute.
Either way, the batter is mixed, poured into the buttered and sugared mold and placed in a deep stew pot with a rack on the bottom. The mold should not rest directly on the bottom of the pot. Boiling water is added to come halfway to two-thirds up the side of the mold.
With the stew pot's lid in place, the pudding is gently simmered and steamed until an inserted skewer comes away with crumbs sticking to it. The mold is then cooled on a rack; within 10 minutes the pudding will shrink from the sides of the mold and can be turned out easily.
The pudding should be served warm, in cakelike slices, with a bit of ice cream.