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What's all this talk about butterscotch budino?

By Wolfgang Puck, Tribune Media Services

Wolfgang Puck's Kitchen

3:30 PM EDT, September 27, 2013

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I read the newspaper every day, catching up on everything that's happening around the world and in my community. Of course, I also read all the articles about what's happening in the world of food, to learn about the latest trends and what people are buzzing about.

So I've been surprised in recent years to see mention over and over again of an Italian dessert called budino. Writers wax poetic describing its smooth, creamy texture and sweet, mellow flavor. Reviewers proclaim it the dessert you must have on the menus of upscale Italian trattorias. Readers write in begging for the recipe, especially for deep amber-colored butterscotch budino, so they can make it home.

And I scratch my head and smile. After all, budino simply means pudding, and the two words are so similar that you don't even really need to speak Italian to come up with the translation. And pudding is something almost everyone I know in America grew up eating.

Even this Austrian-born American citizen has had a love of that particular dessert since childhood. My mother, Maria, used to make butterscotch pudding on Sunday mornings, putting it in the refrigerator to chill as a special lunchtime treat for my sisters, brother, and me. (We lived in southern Austria, only about 30 miles from the Italian border, but I never heard her call it budino!) I first revived her recipe to serve in one of my restaurants more than 20 years ago, and it was a huge hit. I've continued to make it from time to time ever since.

There's nothing especially mysterious or difficult about the recipe. It's basically an egg yolk custard that gains extra smooth, creamy thickness from cornstarch. The mixture takes only about half an hour to prepare, and then a few hours to chill -- the perfect recipe to work into a weekend routine to serve as a family lunchtime treat, or for a special casual dinner party.

Even the butterscotch itself, a cooked mixture of brown sugar and butter, is fairly simple to make. All it requires is that you pay attention during the few minutes it cooks so the mixture doesn't turn too dark and burn.

The only other steps requiring some care involve incorporating the cornstarch and the egg yolks so they don't form lumps. Dissolving the starch first in some of the hot milk helps to ensure smoothness; so does tempering the egg yolks by whisking some of the hot milk mixture into them first. And straining the completed pudding mixture before chilling it further eliminates any stray lumps.

That's it: A few easy steps to make a dessert that everyone you know will be buzzing about. And, if you like, you can even call it budino!

MY MOTHER'S BUTTERSCOTCH PUDDING

Serves 12

6 ounces unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2-1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar

1 vanilla bean

4-1/2 cups milk

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 large cage-free egg yolks

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Put the butter and brown sugar in a large, heavy saucepan. On a cutting board, use a small, sharp knife to cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Use the back of the blade to scrape the tiny, pulpy seeds from inside both halves of the bean, and put the seeds and the scraped beans in the pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasion, until the butter has melted, the ingredients are well combined and bubbling, and the mixture begins to smell like butterscotch, 3 to 5 minutes.

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and cream. Bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. While whisking the hot milk mixture briskly, slowly pour in the butter mixture. The mixture may separate at this point, but if it does, simply remove the pan from the heat and continue whisking until it becomes smooth again.

In a small mixing bowl, stir together the cornstarch and salt. Whisk in a ladleful of the hot milk mixture to dissolve the cornstarch. Then, whisk the dissolved mixture back into the pan of milk and butterscotch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks until smooth. While whisking them continuously, slowly pour in a generous ladleful of the hot mixture to temper the egg yolks. Then, while whisking the pan of hot liquid continuously, gradually pour in the egg yolk mixture. While whisking continuously, continue to cook for about 30 seconds. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Pour the mixture through a fine-meshed strainer into a clean mixing bowl. Ladle the mixture into 12 ramekins or heatproof dessert bowls, each measuring at least 3/4 cup. Leave at room temperature to cool. Then, cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Before serving, uncover the ramekins and, if you like, spoon or pipe some whipped cream into each.