When we first moved from Buffalo, we’d have Sunday dinner with my grandparents every week. My father was their only remaining child – his brother had drowned years and years before, leaving a wake of sadness to seep into everything. You could feel it the moment you stepped out of the car, walked up the cement walkway, and opened the front door. The house was all dark polished wood and silence – a place that whispered grief.
There was not much there for a child, so we’d sit on the back stoop and listen for birds before dinner, or sit stiffly on the sofa after dinner enduring Lawrence Welk. One rainy Sunday I stole into the kitchen out of boredom and sat at the kitchen table to watch Nanny Mac peel the potatoes. She did it slowly, with precision, in a sort-of meditative trance. She didn’t shoo me away that day, and soon I went from watcher to helper. She let me pull a stepstool over to the stove and taught me how to stir real chocolate pudding over low heat until it was perfectly smooth, then pour it into little class parfait dishes to cool in the refrigerator until a chocolate skin formed. Later we’d whip cream with sugar to dollop on top. She told me it was her favorite dessert, but she’d never take even a bite, having given up chocolate as a sacrifice the day her Billy died.
Dessert at Nanny’s was always some sort of pudding. Bread pudding. Butterscotch custard. Rice pudding. I loved them all. Tapioca pudding took the most patience and concentration – the rich spiced smell filling the space between us as we worked in silence at the stove. I treasured being in the kitchen with her which always felt so solemn and ceremonial. We’d set the dining room table together with the good china and crystal even though it was just us. Feeding our family was a sacrament for Nanny.
Now I’m the nanny, calling the family together for the sacrament of Sunday dinners. We gave them up for nearly a year, then slowly returned to the ritual – first with dinner at separate tables in the yard, then masked and social-distanced inside. Now, with the vaccine and our strict adherence to maintaining our bubble, we’re reestablishing the tradition of gathering each week to be together.
This is a long way of saying how thankful I am for those hours spent in a hot, tiny kitchen beside a stoic woman who dealt with loss by nurturing us. She taught me what it means to be strong. The first time I ordered a chai tea latte at Starbucks, I was overcome with emotion – it tastes like tapioca to me. It tastes like love.
To make real tapioca pudding, you need:
- 1/2 cup small pearl tapioca (you can usually find it in the baking section of the grocery store, do not use instant tapioca)
- 3 cups whole milk (or skim milk with cream added)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Combine tapioca, milk, and salt in 1 1/2 quart pan on medium high heat. Stir while bringing to a bare simmer. Lower the heat and cook uncovered, at the lowest possible heat, adding sugar gradually, until the tapioca pearls have plumped up and thickened.
Depending on the type or brand of tapioca you are using and if you’ve presoaked the tapioca as some brands call for, this could take anywhere from 5 minutes to 45 minutes of cooking at a very low temperature.
Stir occasionally so that the tapioca doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Beat eggs in a separate bowl. Whisk in some of the hot tapioca very slowly to equalize the temperature of the two mixtures (to avoid curdling).
Increase the heat to medium and stir for several minutes until you get a thick pudding consistency. Do not let the mixture boil or the tapioca egg custard will curdle. Cool 15 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Serve either warm or chilled.
Note: If you want to make a more light and fluffy, but still rich, tapioca pudding, separate the eggs. Use the egg yolks to stir in first to the pan with the tapioca. Once the pudding has become nice and thick, beat the egg whites in a separate bowl to soft peaks. Remove the pan of tapioca pudding from the stove, fold in the beaten egg whites into the pudding.
(Recipe from Simply Recipes)
Or, if you’re in a hurry, go to Starbucks and order a Grande Chai Tea Latte. Inhale. Sip slowly.