Snuggling up to warm and cuddly puddings

Puddings - warm, soft, and fuzzy - are the down puffs of comfort foods, the duvets of desserts.

Now is the time when those of us in the colder parts of the country are straining to hear a robin's song heralding the promised spring.

Wake-up call: It may be awhile. The warmth we're looking to comfort us from March winds is inside, right there by the fireplace, or in the kitchen in the form of fragrant stews, cups of hot mulled cider, and puddings.

Puddings have taken on a variety of forms over the years including savories, such as Britain's terribly popular (there, at least) Steak and Kidney Pudding and haggis (who doesn't love sheeps' offal mixed with suet and oatmeal, stuffed in a sheep stomach and boiled?), and the more universally accepted Yorkshire Pudding.

Then there's the traditional English gag, Plum Pudding, which contains just about every ingredient on the kitchen shelf, except, of course, plums.

In the United States, puddings are most often thought of as sweets, such as custards, souffles, flans, among others, thickened with egg, starch, or gelatin, and served at the end of a meal.

One of the first desserts invented in North America was Hasty Pudding, a quickly thrown-together mixture of milk, molasses, and cornmeal, which takes half an eternity to cook. (Harvard University's literary society, the Hasty Pudding Club, founded in 1795, was named for this dessert.) A recipe for this classic dessert of New England, now known as Indian Pudding, follows, along with two other comfort offerings:

INDIAN PUDDING

3 cups whole milk

1/4 cup yellow cornmeal, (stone-ground preferred, but

not essential)

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons

powdered ginger

1/2 cup dark unsulphured molasses

1 tart apple, peeled, cored, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)

Quality vanilla ice cream for topping

Pour 2 cups of the milk in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. When milk begins to boil, slowly sprinkle and whisk in cornmeal. Add the butter, salt, ginger, and molasses. Stir (or whisk) until all ingredients are smooth and well-incorporated; stir in apple.

Boil for 10 to 15 minutes - stirring occasionally - until the mixture has a porridge-like consistency. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and butter a 2-quart baking dish.

Pour pudding mixture into baking dish and bake for 20 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup of milk. Turn oven down to 250 degrees and bake for 1-1/2 hours.

Stir again and float remaining milk on top of pudding; continue baking 3 to 4 hours. (The top will glaze over.)

Serve warm, topped with ice cream.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

MICROWAVE CITRUS PUDDING

Don't be surprised when this pudding separates into two layers during cooking, it's supposed to. For the citrus juice, either lemon or lime may be used, or a combination of both.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2/3 cup sugar

3 eggs, separated

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/3 cup fresh lime or lemon juice

1 tablespoon lime or lemon zest

3 drops green or yellow food coloring (optional)

Sweetened whipped cream (optional)

In a medium bowl, mix the butter with a whisk until soft. Gradually beat in sugar, then egg yolks, one at a time. Add milk, flour, citrus juice, zest, and optional food coloring. Beat with electric mixer, whisk until well-blended.

Beat egg whites into soft peaks; gently fold into the batter. Pour into a microwave-proof, 8-inch-square baking dish. Microwave on medium for 8 to 11 minutes, or until barely set.

Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before serving. Serve topped with whipped cream, if you like. Serves 6.

BREAD AND CHOCOLATE PUDDING

3 cups whole milk

4 tablespoons butter, plus some for greasing pan

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1-1/4 teaspoons cinnamon powder

1/2 cup sugar,

plus 1 tablespoon

8 slices day-old white bread, torn into bite-sized pieces (a loaf of French bread works well)

3 eggs

Sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a medium saucepan, warm the milk, butter, chocolate, cinnamon, and 1/2-cup of sugar over low heat until butter begins to melt.

Meanwhile, butter an 8-inch-square oven-proof pan or dish. Place bread in pan and pour hot milk over it. Set aside to cool slightly (about 5 minutes).

Lightly beat eggs and stir them into bread mixture. Sprinkle top with remaining sugar and a bit more cinnamon if you like.

Place pan in a larger baking dish and pour hot water in it to within 1 inch of the top of pudding dish.

Bake 45 to 60 minutes, or until center just begins to become slightly firm.

Serve hot with vanilla ice cream, or warm with whipped cream.

Makes 6 servings.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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