Pudding doesn’t often get much respect in the fancy-desserts arena; for many people (myself included), our first mental image of this treat comes in the form of the little plastic cups from Jell-O or Swiss Miss that were regularly tucked into our elementary school lunch bags. However, an Italian variation on this schoolyard snack has succeeded in breaking down the barriers separating pudding from the elite sweets pantheon, to the point where you’ll see budino –– Italy’s answer to pudding — on upscale bistro menus in major cities throughout the U.S.
So what exactly is budino? Is it really the same as American pudding, or does it feature different ingredients and textures that give it a more sophisticated look, feel, and taste? We looked to the experts to weigh in on this topic, and our chef sources provided us with a full budino education.
What is budino?
“First of all, it is important to understand that ‘budino’ is the Italian word for pudding … so in terms of linguistics, anything that is called a ‘pudding’ in another language would be translated as a ‘budino’ in Italian — whether it is an Italian recipe or not,” explains chef and cookbook author Amy Riolo. She also explains that “budino” as a term likely started in the 19th century and was probably more commonly applied to savory “puddings” made in delicatessens (similar to French boudin, which, according to Riolo, also took its name from the English “pudding”).
“In terms of actual recipes, however, what distinguishes [budino] is that most puddings are thickened with cornstarch, but since cornstarch was not available in Italy until after the 17th century and not widely used until recently, Italian budini (plural for budino) were traditionally thickened with flour and/or gelatin and egg yolks without cornstarch. But nowadays, especially with Italian chefs in the US, cornstarch can also be used,” Riolo continues.
Brand chef Carlos Calderon of North Italia fully embraces the familiarity and the nostalgia value of budino, insisting that “[budino is] technically just pudding. Italian chefs love this dessert because it’s fun, decadent, and fairly easy (and cheap) to make. It can also be prepared in large batches in a relatively short amount of time. Our guests love budino because it’s nostalgic and rich. Pudding was one of my favorite desserts as a kid, as I would think [it was] for many. Our hope is that we can take our guests and whisk (no pun intended) them to a happy place in their minds.”
While budino isn’t an inherently difficult dish to make, it does require a certain level of precision. Chef Stefano Masanti of Il Cantinone in Madesimo, Italy tells us that “it is pretty simple to make a good budino. My suggestion is to measure your ingredients carefully, then take your time, channel your passion, and always taste before you serve to family and friends!”
How does budino differ from pudding and custard?
Although budino likely got its start as a savory dish, it’s overwhelmingly found on dessert menus these days, and if you’re gearing up to order a budino to finish off your meal, then you can expect certain distinct characteristics in terms of texture, according to chef/owner Jonathan Doar of Doar Bros. in Charleston, South Carolina. “When I think of budino, I think of a more firm and silky feel; [it’s] less ‘soupy’ [than other puddings]. The best budino I had was in Abruzzo years ago. The chef would fold in egg whites [as] opposed to yolks to give it a smoother mouth feel. Man, I miss that,” Doar tells us.
Calderon agrees that thickeners prove essential to budino’s appeal, claiming that “the key ingredient to making budino is a thickening agent, such as cornstarch. You can play with the flavors all you like, but make sure you incorporate this element; otherwise, it will not produce the desired result.”
Chef/owner Alex Meyer of Boia De in Miami urges budino first-timers to open their minds and expand their expectations beyond American pudding norms: “ I generally think of budino as a more specific type of pudding, one that’s made from milk, eggs, and a starch to thicken, like cornstarch. Kids in America grow up with the Jell-O pudding style that’s set with gelatin, so they’ll find a proper budino quite a bit richer.”
Which flavors best suit budino?
Budino, like American pudding, comes in a wide variety of flavors, and chefs have free rein to experiment with new versions. The classic budino — and the one that you’re most likely to find on a restaurant menu — is chocolate budino. Executive chef and co-founder Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria in Los Angeles believes that chocolate budino’s popularity is due to the fact that “chocolate is rich, bitter, and buttery. At the same time, chocolate is not too heavy.”
Chocolate budino may represent the gold standard for this dessert, but other flavors can certainly play well off of the creamy richness. Calderon says that “I love salted caramel budino, but I think chocolate tends to be a more common flavor that resonates with lots of people. The great thing about budino is that it’s very versatile — you can make it very sweet or savory. That’s why it’s a great choice for chefs, especially those who like to experiment. It is also a super decadent dessert that will absolutely impress that someone special in your life, with half the work!”
Ready to make your own budino? Start with this recipe:
(By Sylvain Marrari, pastry chef, Gianni’s, Miami)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 4 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 8 oz chocolate (Marrari prefers Valrhona Araguani chocolate)
- Mix the cream and milk in a saucepot and bring to a boil.
- Add the egg yolks and sugar to a bowl and whisk to combine. Gradually add the milk-cream mixture and cook for 1 minute to make a crème anglaise.
- Pour the crème anglaise into a separate container and use a hand mixer to integrate fully.
- Melt the chocolate and slowly mix it into the crème anglaise until smooth.
- Pour half of the mixture into a half-sphere mold and the other half into a donut mold.
- Freeze the molds until solid and dip the dome into a pâte à glacer. Serve alongside a scoop of gelato (Marrari recommends pistachio gelato).
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