Every once in a while, I try to do something hard. What might be considered to be hard varies with a number of variables, most notably is how my vertigo is playing. So, on this particular day, when I was determined that my bobble-headed disequilibrium was not going to force me into a chair, I decided to make tapioca pudding. Yes, I know. You are thinking: what? Tapioca pudding?
We are tapioca lovers. I am aware that there are those who are not aficionados of this dessert and, for those of you who fall into this category, I ask your forbearance while I continue. This not only has to do with taste and texture, but it very much has to do with memories of childhood and my grandmother’s predilection to make large pearl tapioca pudding which she, herself, thought to be special, not only because of taste, but also because it took so much time and attention to produce.
Tapioca is a kind of unusual food. It comes from the manioc plant, also known as cassava. It takes a bit of work to get from manioc to tapioca because manioc is poisonous unless processed to remove cyanide.
And here those of you who don’t like tapioca will think,” I knew there was a reason beyond its texture that I didn’t like it.”
Manioc grows all over South America and is a staple food for millions all over the world. It is important as a main ingredient in a raft of Asian desserts as well as “bubble tea.” In the U.S. tapioca is used as a thickener for a lot of food products. I use it to thicken fruit pies. It is also the basis for a pudding made with milk, eggs and sugar.
There are two kinds of tapioca available locally. The first kind is a rather “quick” version which will, by following the directions, turn out about five or six four-ounce puddings. This is the version of tapioca is used as a thickener. The second kind? Well, as a child, my grandmother would only have this version in the house. She loved it. She spoke not only kindly but devotedly of it. The anticipation of a tapioca pudding was an event. It was expensive and was used only for special occasions which, along with Granny’s accolades, made its consumption very special. This version is called tapioca pearls. Why? Because this tapioca looks like pearls.
As a quick aside, there was, a few years ago, a dearth of tapioca. No store had any. I asked Rich Nojaim why there wasn’t any on the shelves and he told me that he tried every source he had, but none was available. The same was true of the big box stores. Explanations revolved around the shortage of people to unload ships carrying the product on the west coast during the pandemic. I will have to accept this as true or make up some conspiratorial meme about tapioca and politicians who have fallen out of favor.
Also as an aside, tapioca is one of the foods that people with digestive issues can tolerate. It’s gluten free and low in something call FODMAPS. Don’t ask me what the latter is, beyond that FODMAPS seem to be foods that make you feel gaseous or worse. This may be one of the reasons why I like it so much.
Anyway, the day that I challenged myself to make pearl tapioca pudding had come. In truth, making the pudding is not difficult in the sense that it requires esoteric skills. It simply takes a bit of time and some focused attention. First, you have to soak the pearls for a day. I thought that there must be some quicker way to do this, so I consulted google and found a recipe that required only a one-hour soak. I followed the recipe and it made pudding. It was ok pudding but not the luscious, chewy version that I remembered at my grandmother’s table. I still had more of the precious pearls, so I forged ahead.
Reverting to the old version required some patience on my part. After an overnight soak, following the recipe which required my standing over the stove, carefully adding the warmed milk and tapioca to an egg mixture and stirring the pot for what seemed to be hours, I produced the desired result. Lusciousness, smooth with a generous number of indescribably delicious pearls floating in a symphony of vanilla flavor … perfect. My spouse and I consumed all six desserts in two days. Heck, if I were alone, they would have been gone in one. Maybe in one afternoon.
The effort was worth it.