Indian Pudding, a New England Thanksgiving Tradition
"I refuse to let this last bastion of Native American influence fade into culinary obscurity."
Pumpkin pie can suck it! If there's a single dish that launches me straight back to the innocence of childhood and the warm comfort of my Yankee roots, it's this: a bowl of warm Indian pudding with vanilla ice cream melting and pooling moat-like around its perimeter.
I have heard that some folks who reside in this fair nation have never tried it, let alone heard of it. Perhaps because the name conjures up images of actual native tribesmen lodged within the pudding, either rowing their miniature birch canoes across the surface in full headdress or, worse, embedded in a more permanent, less recognizable way into the fabric of the pudding itself. Either way, I admit it would be hard to enjoy dessert under those circumstances. So let me make one thing perfectly clear: Indian pudding does not contain actual Native Americans (nor actual Indians). Not if it's made correctly.
Indian pudding is actually prepared from a small amount of cornmeal (which the British settlers called "Indian" meal due to some minor geographic confusion) cooked in milk until thickened, spiced with flavorings like ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg, sweetened with molasses or maple syrup, then baked until pudding-ish. Think of it as sweetened polenta, unless you hate polenta—then don't think of it that way at all.
Fancy recipes call for long, slow baking at a low temperature with the pan resting gently in a water bath. That strikes me as a bit on the fussy side for nomadic hunter-gatherers. I prefer to throw caution to the wind and bake it sans bain-marie. The pudding may whey a bit (old-fashioned language for some liquid separating out—or as I like to call it, "sauce") but that's part of the charm of Indian pudding. With the aforementioned vanilla ice cream melting all over the place, you'll hardly notice. It's sloppy and delicious. Children love it (as do many a childish adult).
You may prefer to continue under the very naive impression that you have Thanksgiving dessert under control this year with your apple crisps and your pecan pies and pumpkin cheesecake abominations. But I refuse to let this last bastion of Native American influence fade into culinary obscurity. If there can't be any Indians at my Thanksgiving table, then there damned well better be Indian pudding!
About the author: Tammy Donroe is a Boston-based freelance writer and the author of the blog Food on the Food. She is the teeniest, tiniest part Mi'kmaq.