Tapioca is a very early, long-standing food memory for me. I am sure the first few times I had it, my mom made it. But somewhere along the way it became the domain of my brother, and he would whip up giant batches of it and eat the lion's share of it... sometimes still warm. It was from an instant box--a red box with "Minute Tapioca" on it that was ever-present in our kitchen growing up. I still love tapioca, and have made it many times as an adult. But I haven't really utilized it as a non-instant (that would be "from scratch") ingredient other than as an occasional thickener in pies or crisps, and I've never liked it in that setting--too pearl-y, and it seems to interfere with the desired texture of whatever it is I'm making. To me, tapioca is meant to be a pudding. Period.
So last summer I was planning a Chinese-style (if you add the "-style," you get away with being a little less authetic, just fyi) dinner for work to celebrate the Beijing Summer Olympics, and visited the very small, rather dismal local Asian grocery store. They didn't have much that I was interested in, but I saw a bag of pretty colorful beads with "tapioca" on the bag, and had to have it. And, to boot, the whole bag was 99 cents. What a bargain!
The bag has been beckoning to me from the cupboard for months. Finally I decided, after scorching a batch of instant-ish tapioca a week or so ago, that the time for "from scratch" had arrived. Following a little online investigation, I arrived at 101 cookbooks, and decided her recipe would be the one. The photo alone drew me in! Check her out--her blog is lovely and I have always enjoyed her writing as well.
I ammended her recipe just slightly--less milk to make it a wee big eggier, and though I was concerned about the scorching after my last debacle with the pudding, it didn't even stick a little for me this time... I did use a different pot, one of my small All-Clads, and it worked like a jiff. Quite yummy, too!
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split along the length (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract). I used about a half teaspoon of this glorious vanilla bean paste I buy by the jar.
Pour 3/4 cup of the milk into a medium-sized, thick-bottomed pot. Add the tapioca and soak for 60 minutes (I couldn't wait more than 30 and it still turned out just fine. I was a very impatient tapioca maker, what can I say?). Whisk in the egg yolks, salt, sugar, and the remaining milk. Scrape the vanilla bean along its length with a knife and add that bean "paste" along with the bean itself to the pot (if you are using vanilla extract in place of the vanilla bean stir it in at the very end, after the pudding is completely cooked).
Over medium heat slowly bring the mixture just barely to a boil, stirring fairly consistently. Reduce the heat and let the mixture fall to a simmer; you keep it here until the tapioca is fully cooked, another 20 minutes or so. The tapioca will tell you when it is ready if you watch carefully. The tapioca beads will swell up and become almost entirely translucent. The custardy part of pudding will thicken as well. Keep tasting and assessing at this stage. It is even more critical to keep stirring at this point avoid dreaded scorching. Remove from heat and let cool a bit. I ate some warm, some cold... liked it equally either way.
Serves 4-6. (Or, Sher... twice. Hmmm, something's up with the quantities here!)
See those two little beads that stand out along the bottom of the bowl above? They were once green and pink. It was kinda cool how the whole pudding mellowed as it cooked, and the beads lost their bright color, and the pudding itself all became a kind of rosy glowing mass. It was quite good. Hate to say it, but I won't be going back to instant. This didn't seem like any more work, and heaps better.