Recently, I was overcome by an inexplicable yearning for butterscotch pudding. I’m not above instant pudding or even a foil-topped pudding cup from time to time, but this particular itch could only be scratched by the real deal—homemade.
I began with a vanilla pudding recipe I’ve tweaked and perfected over time. As puddings go, it’s a pretty standard affair, with the exception of the method by which I incorporate the butter. Though most pudding recipes include some amount of butter, it's usually added during cooking or is whisked into the bubbling, hot pudding mixture as soon as it comes off of the stove.
For my pudding recipe, however, I stole a page from Pierre Hermé and his fantastic lemon cream (aka, curd) recipe, straining the pudding after it is fully cooked, cooling it slightly, and using a food processor or a blender to whiz in cold butter chunks right before putting the whole mess into the refrigerator. The resulting pudding is incomparably creamy, delicate, and silky smooth—the perfect starting point for my butterscotch pudding craving.
Etymological Roots of Butterscotch
Food historians and etymologists don't know the exact origins of "butterscotch." Some believe the “scotch” portion of the term is a corruption of “scorch," perhaps in reference to the caramel or "burnt sugar" flavor and appearance. Others believe the “scotch” refers to the possible butterscotch birthplace: Scotland.
All seem to agree that the “butter” portion just means butter, and that butterscotch entered the English lexicon as a name for a candy made by boiling together butter and sugar, much as one would for English toffee or a Scottish butter tablet. (I have found no official arguments or evidence suggesting the name has ties to Scotch whiskey, but I still can’t find fault with a good dose of booze in anything labeled butterscotch.)
Eventually, the rich, buttery, caramelized-sugar flavor of the candy was translated into sauces and puddings, and butterscotch began referring to the flavor more than the candy itself.
Perfecting the Butterscotch Flavor
In my base recipe, I already had a fair amount of butter flavor and just needed to draw the proper flavor from the sugar and dial back the vanilla to make it taste more butterscotchy. Many butterscotch pudding recipes describe what is essentially a vanilla pudding with brown sugar (substituted for white sugar) but doing so with this recipe, the resulting pudding lacked flavor depth and the tawny color of a good butterscotch pudding.
Other recipes called for boiling brown sugar with butter until the mixture is syrupy, thick, and slightly caramelized (like when making a butterscotch sauce or candy) before adding the rest of the ingredients. No doubt, this would have created the right flavor, but I wanted to incorporate my butter at the end for textural reasons so I caramelized the sugar on its own.
I shy away from recipes with too many specific temperatures. To make this recipe more approachable, I strived for a caramel by color, rather than thermometer. The subtle molasses flavor imparted by brown sugar is essential for any good butterscotch, but caramelizing brown sugar by sight is nearly impossible. Molasses content obscures the changing color of the sugar itself.
I decided to use white sugar as the basis of my caramel, adding some straight molasses and other ingredients later, which offset what was lost in the brown sugar omission. That did the trick. An extra hit of salt drew out all the flavors and a healthy splash of scotch, just because. I finally had my ideal butterscotch pudding.
- 1/2 cup sugar (105g)
- 2 tablespoons cold tap water (28g)
- 3 large egg yolks (60g)
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch (24g)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (4g)
- 1 tablespoon molasses (20g)
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk (560g)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (5g)
- 2 teaspoons scotch, whiskey, bourbon or dark rum, optional (10g)
- 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into about 8 large chunks (84g)
Position a fine mesh strainer over a heatproof bowl and place beside the stovetop. Whisk together cornstarch and egg yolks until smooth. Add molasses and salt, and whisk to incorporate. Slowly whisk in about 1/2 cup of the whole milk, until mixture is smooth and free of lumps. Set aside.
Heat remaining milk in the microwave or on the stove top until hot but not boiling. Set aside.
Spread sugar evenly over the bottom of a medium sauce pan. Sprinkle sugar with water, tilting pan slightly to moisten all sugar. Place pan over medium-high heat.* After about five minutes, sugar will begin to color. With a long-handled heat-proof spatula or wooden spoon, gently stir the sugar until it is an even, red-amber color.
Taking care to avoid hot splatter, slowly pour in about half of the warm milk, stirring vigorously to dissolve the caramelized sugar. Once the caramel is dissolved, add the remaining warm milk and turn off the heat.
Stir cornstarch mixture from the first step to loosen and smooth. Slowly whisk about half of the hot caramel-milk mixture into the cornstarch mixture, then pour this cornstarch mixture back into the pot with the remaining caramel milk.
Stirring constantly, and taking care to scrape regularly along the sides and corners of the pot, cook the mixture over medium heat for about eight minutes, until foam subsides, mixture thickens and large bubbles begin to occasionally rise and break at the surface. Continue to cook the pudding, stirring vigorously for an additional minute.
Remove the pan from heat, stir in the extract and liquor, then immediately pour the pudding through the reserved strainer.
Allow the pudding to cool in the bowl at room temperature for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.
Pour the pudding into a blender pitcher or food processor bowl and blend or process on high. (Be careful to avoid hot splatter.) Add butter chunks one by one, and continue to blend the pudding for about a minute after the last butter chunk has been added. Scrape down the sides of the container and blend pudding briefly to ensure thorough incorporation.
Spoon the pudding into six 4-ounce ramekins and refrigerate.
* If you’re comfortable making a caramel and want to save some time, you can perform first and second steps while the sugar cooks in third step.