Better Butterscotch Pudding
What comes to mind when you think of a pudding cup? Is it a Snack Pack? Please tell me it's a vanilla Snack Pack. Or a chocolate Snack Pack. Or those amazing Snack Packs that had both vanilla and chocolate. OR, if you and I are best friends, you'll think of Air Bud shootin' hoops and eating little vanilla Snack Packs one by one. That's what I think of when a pudding cup comes to mind: sitting on the couch as a kid watching Air Bud, craving any sort of Snack Pack and walking to the fridge to see a whole lifetime supply of pudding cups sitting in there. And then eating one while watching Air Bud eat one.
Those were the days.
I'm a little too old for Snack Packs now. (Honestly I would still destroy a full 6-pack on my own.) But when a coworker specially requested butterscotch pudding, I knew I couldn't just bring in a full tub of it, and I knew I couldn't just make any old butterscotch pudding -- I decided to make it fancy, and of course I turned to Smitten Kitchen for some inspiration.
And then this Better Butterscotch Pudding was born. It starts with a simple pudding recipe which is left to cool in mini Mason jars, and then each pudding cup is topped with a layer of caramel and flaked sea salt. They are pure magic, and my boyfriend who doesn't even like caramel loved them. He told me they taste exactly like crème brûlée, and he is exactly right, minus the hard caramel on top -- for these, we make a very soft and classically sticky caramel to layer on top of the puddings. If you don't have mini Mason jars -- I found these little guys at Sur La Table -- ramekins will do just fine.
I need to stop talking about them and really just pudding cups in general because I am now craving a Snack Pack. Consider these the grown-up, more indulgent version; they are even more delicious.
Better Butterscotch Pudding
2/3 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
Stir the brown sugar, water, and salt together in the bottom of a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat on to medium-high and cook the mixture without stirring until it’s dark brown and smells caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes. Whisk in the cream (it’s going to hiss and bubble dramatically), then milk. The butterscotch is going to firm up when the cooler cream/milk hits it, but bring the mixture back to a boil, stirring all the way into the corners, and the butterscotch will liquefy again.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg, egg yolks, and cornstarch. Very slowly drizzle in 1 cup of the butterscotch mixture, whisking the whole time. The bowl should feel warm, but if it does not, keep drizzling in butterscotch and whisking until it does, then whisk this back into the mixture still in the saucepan. Return the saucepan to the stove over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it comes to a bloopy, slow simmer. Whisk it, simmering, for 1 to 2 minutes; it should thicken fast.
Remove pot from heat, whisk in butter until it melts, then rum, if using, and vanilla — you can start with 1 teaspoon and add the second if you want a stronger flavor.
Pour pudding into 5-6 small cups or ramekins and place a layer of plastic wrap directly on top of the puddings to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or overnight.
Once the puddings are mostly cool and set, you can make the salted caramel. Combine the sugar and water in the bottom of a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, then turn heat on stove to medium-high and cook without stirring (but you can gently tip the pan to gauge color) until the sugar takes on an amber color, about 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat and carefully whisk butter, then cream, into the caramel (it’s going to hiss and bubble dramatically, too). If the caramel firms, you can return it to stove to gently heat it until it melts again, but I didn’t find this necessary. Let caramel cool a bit, then spoon some onto the top of each pudding, sprinkle with flaked salt, and let them finish cooling.