Friday, April 20, 2012

Stirring, Stirring, Stirring My Brew.....

Stirring is a fundamental skill required for cooking. You're thinking, "Duh.....I stir my coffee/tea every's a no brainer, right?" Well, yes--and no. Stirring a thin liquid like your morning brew IS a no brainer. With that type of liquid, a cursory swirl with a spoon is all that's required to integrate the ingredients and keep the mass moving. Things get a little more fussy when you are cooking up a batch of chunky soup or stew, or a pot of thick tomato sauce, or, one of my personal obsessions, chocolate pudding. When you get in deep with the viscous stuff you really need to choose your weapon wisely and hone your technique or you will find burned portions sticking to the bottom of the pot after you serve. Trust me, that crusty burned stuff can affect the taste of the entire batch--and not in a good way! 

I recently made a batch of my favorite rich, dark chocolate pudding, an indulgence that is a completely different experience from the powdery stuff that comes in a box. As an avowed chocaholic, I find that most of the commercial chocolate offerings are too heavy on sugar and fat and too light on chocolate taste. Not so with this recipe. This pudding is incredibly chocolatey, courtesy of Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder, and because I use one percent milk, very low fat. By making it from scratch, you can adjust the ingredients to your own taste, which I did when I found this recipe, reducing the sugar, increasing the cocoa, and leaving out the heavy cream. If you find the chocolate flavor too intense (I can't believe I wrote that!), feel free to substitute any regular cocoa powder (which, it should be noted, is not the stuff you mix with hot water to make hot chocolate--this is unsweetened cocoa powder, designed for cooking and baking).

As illustrated, when I first start this recipe, I add all the dry ingredients to the sauce pot (one somewhat larger than strictly necessary to contain the ingredients...that way if my stirring gets over zealous at any point, I don't have to wash the stove!). I then add the milk and begin combining the ingredients rather briskly over medium heat with a wire whisk. Once the steam begins to rise off the milk, I know my mixture is starting to heat up allowing the cornstarch to perform its magic and thicken the mixture. It is at this point that I switch to a blunt wooden implement which will really scrape the cooked portions off the bottom without scarring my pot. I make sure to stir up the entire bottom of the pot vigorously and continuously, even around the edges, so that none of the pudding will stick and burn. As soon as it begins to boil, the cornstarch will have reached maximum thickening power and the pudding is done. Pour into serving dishes, cover and chill. As you can see from the picture of the empty pot, I left no pudding unturned! Sweet success, indeed.

Chocolate Cornstarch Pudding
Serves: 4 to 6

9 Tbs. cocoa powder
3/4 cup sugar
4-1/2 cups milk (1% lowfat)
1/8 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. cornstarch
2-1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

In a two quart saucepan, stir together cocoa powder, sugar, milk, salt and cornstarch. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with whisk until ingredients are combined. When it begins to thicken, switch to a blunt implement and scrape the thickened portions off the bottom of the pot. When bubbly and quite thick, remove from heat, stir in vanilla gently. Pour into 4 to 6 dessert cups, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

Notes & Pointers:
Being the chocoholic I am, you know this is the darkest, richest chocolate pudding you've ever tasted! But since I use cocoa powder rather than whole chocolate and 1% milk, it's also guilt free and very nearly fat free, so enjoy as often as possible. I usually use extra dark cocoa powder.

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