A simple food returns to the holiday menu and a family tradition is revived

Warm Indian pudding topped with vanilla mousseline sauce. Its main ingredients are cornmeal, molasses, and milk. It became a dessert in the 19th century when cooks began adding eggs and sugar, but in the beginning it was the meal. (Kay Rentschler/Anson Mills)

My Philadelphia childhood straddled two unlikely culinary traditions: the fertile fields of Lancaster County and Boston's briny North Shore.

Maybe not so odd, after all. Both championed fresh, local ingredients that were unpretentiously prepared. Our food looked exactly like what it was, and it was delicious.

Why ruin it with fancy stuff, even on holidays?

From Mom's roots in Ephrata, Pa., came Cope's dried corn, crunchy coleslaw with hard-boiled eggs and cream, and - oh man, the desserts!

At Thanksgiving, we plowed through pecan, pumpkin, and lemon sponge pies. Christmas brought more pies and towering tins of sand tarts, butter chews, and German almond cookies, kept cool on the darkened cellar steps.

From Ipswich, Mass., on my father's side, we demolished whole steamed lobsters down to their juicy little legs, which even the littlest Smiths learned to suck dry; steamed Ipswich clams dunked in hot broth and salty butter; chowder brimming with more of those famous bivalves.

And for dessert, airy snow pudding draped with crème anglaise and . . . my most favorite, ever . . . Indian pudding, which came, in my house and many others, to symbolize Thanksgiving.

"It's very New England-y, very Yankee. It's our heritage, but a lot of people these days don't know about it," says Steve Pickford, innkeeper at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., which dates to 1716 and is one of a handful of restaurants still serving Indian pudding.

Its main ingredients are cornmeal, molasses, and milk. The "Indian" refers to the indigenous people's "flour," a coarsely ground cornmeal that the English colonists called "Indian meal."

Using pudding techniques from across the pond, our forbears used "Indian meal" to make hearty, thrifty, uncomplicated foods - johnnycake, pone, mush, and the slow-baked Indian pudding - to sustain them through harsh winters and uncertain times.

Three Indian pudding recipes appear in Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, the first American cookbook, published in 1796. But the dish has been around since the 1650s, when molasses first arrived from the Caribbean.

According to Kathleen M. Wall, colonial foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., where the Mayflower Pilgrims landed in 1620, "Indian pudding was cheap and easy. It filled you up. You ate it so you wouldn't have empty places in your hardworking stomach . . . and it was the meal. It wasn't something you ate after the meal."

Indian pudding became dessert in the 19th century, when a revival of traditional American foods glamourized what Pickford calls "this dark brown mush" by adding eggs and sugar. Home cooks also tried cranberries, huckleberries, raisins, apples, and orange peel, and dressed the concoction with heavy cream, whipped cream, or much later, ice cream.

"Indian pudding became a special treat for dessert and it came to be associated with Thanksgiving," says Wall, who calls it "heaven in a bowl."

The dessert has been almost unrecognizably enhanced by Anson Mills, grower and purveyor of heirloom grains in Columbia, S.C. Founder Glenn Roberts' version is an elegant affair described as "a lush, silken interior and a treacly umber top with a soft, supple chew."

"Indian pudding is a kind of mash-up," he says, "a collision of the hasty pudding traditions of the Old World . . . married to native traditions in the New World."

My father and his siblings' pudding was decidedly inelegant, but on those treks to Ipswich my generation clamored for its old-fashioned goodness. So much so, that after a lunchtime stop at a turnpike HoJo's for fried Ipswich clam strips, we would - forgive us, Anson Mills - load up on cans of the chain's Indian pudding to take home.

But like the long drives to Ipswich, a tiny coastal town settled in 1633, our Indian pudding tradition slowly slipped away. Until about 20 years ago, when someone around the Thanksgiving table reminisced about this once-loved family favorite.

Suddenly, a realization: The older generations hadn't had any in years and the youngsters had never even heard of it.

Out came the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (see accompanying recipe), and the very next year, a Smith tradition was reborn. The kids loved it.

This, even though the pudding is down-home homely, molasses can come on strong, and the finished product has a baked "skin" on top that some - including Wall, but no one in my world - find unappetizing.

The young ones readily embraced what we old-timers have known forever: Nothing beats those rivulets of melting vanilla ice cream, the heady gingerbread taste and fragrance, of "heaven in a bowl."


Baked Indian Pudding With Vanilla Mousseline

Makes 8 servings

For the mousseline:

1 large egg

1.75 ounces (1/4 cup) sugar

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and slightly warm

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of fine sea salt

1 cup cold heavy cream

For the Indian pudding: 

4 cups whole milk

5 ounces (1 cup) Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Cornmeal or Antebellum Fine Cornmeal (white or yellow)

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the baking dish and foil

6.3 ounces (1/2 cup) light molasses

2.8 ounces (1/3 cup) dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

1. To make the vanilla mousseline, combine the egg and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or, if using a handheld mixer, a heatproof mixing bowl. Place the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Whisk continuously until the mixture is smooth and warm and has thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Remove the bowl from the heat and, if using a stand mixer, beat on medium-high speed with the whisk attachment or with a handheld mixer on medium-high speed, until the mixture is thick and cool, about 5 minutes. Drizzle in the melted butter a little at a time, followed by the vanilla and salt, and continue beating until the mixture is cool and fluffy. Cover the surface of the sauce with plastic wrap and chill until completely cold, at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

3. Using a stand mixer or handheld mixer, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the base.

4. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. With the 1 tablespoon butter, grease a 2-quart baking dish or pudding mold and a piece of aluminum foil that will serve to cover the dish; set both aside. Fill a teakettle with water and bring the water to a boil.

5. Place the milk and cornmeal in a heavy-bottomed 2- or 3-quart saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat and continue to whisk as the mixture simmers and thickens, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter piece by piece. Whisk in the molasses, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and vanilla. Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk well. Stir about 1/2 cup of the hot cornmeal mixture into the eggs to warm them, and then pour the egg mixture into the saucepan and stir to incorporate.

6. Pour the hot pudding into the prepared baking dish or mold. Fit the foil over the dish, buttered side down, or cover the mold with its lid. Pull out the oven rack partway and place a large roasting pan on it. Set the pudding in the roasting pan and pour boiling water from the teakettle to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish or mold. Bake the pudding for 3 hours, adding water to the roasting pan if necessary to maintain the same level.

7. Remove the pudding from the water bath and let it cool for about 30 minutes. If you have used a baking dish, simply cut or spoon the pudding into servings. If you have used a pudding mold, invert the mold onto a platter. Apply hot, damp kitchen towels to the inverted mold to persuade the pudding to slip from its form. Lift off the mold and cut the pudding into portions. Serve warm with vanilla mousseline.


- From ansonmills.com


Notes: For the Indian pudding, you will need a digital kitchen scale, a 2-quart baking dish or pudding mold, a teakettle to boil water, a heavy-bottomed 2- or 3-quart saucepan, a whisk, a medium mixing bowl, a rubber spatula, and a roasting pan to use as an oven insert with the baking dish.

For the mousseline, you will need a stand mixer with a whisk attachment or a handheld mixer, a heatproof mixing bowl if using a handheld mixer, a whisk, and a rubber spatula.

Per serving: 436 calories; 8 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams sugar; 25 grams fat; 149 milligrams cholesterol; 333 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.

Indian Pudding

Makes 8-10 servings

4 cups milk

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal (stone ground)

2/3 cup (or less) dark brown sugar

1/3 cup molasses

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Heat 2 cups milk until very hot and pour it slowly over the cornmeal, stirring constantly.

2. Cook in a double boiler over simmering water for 10-15 minutes until the cornmeal mixture is creamy. (You can also skip the double boiler and just heat it over the stove, if you want). Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

3. Spoon into a buttered 11/2-quart baking dish. Pour the remaining 2 cups of milk on top and put dish into the oven in a pan of hot water.

4. Bake 21/2 to 3 hours until pudding sets. It will become firmer as it cools.

5. Serve with heavy cream or vanilla ice cream.


- Adapted from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook


Per serving (based on 10, without ice cream or whipped cream): 182 calories; 4 grams protein; 28 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; 20 milligrams cholesterol; 321 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.