Real Southern banana pudding made with Nilla Wafers is certainly a truly worthwhile culinary experience, but outside of this lone outlier, the world of pudding doesn’t necessarily pose too strong of a draw for those whose ages have long since crept into the double digits. The idea of pudding conjures up images of little boxes of chocolate, vanilla and tapioca powder. Or maybe at best, an auntie or neighbor who brought a rice or bread pudding with her to every retirement party, christening and wake when you were young. I remember the Wendy’s salad bar buffet near my childhood row home in Philadelphia having a deep plastic bin of the chocolate stuff right there next to the iceberg lettuce and various ladles of thick, creamy salad dressings. Long story short, pudding isn’t exactly an exciting and vibrant part of the culinary world, where chefs are doing their imaginative best work.
But budino, on the other hand, now that’s a dessert. To say that the word is Italian for pudding is technically accurate, but it excises all of the delicious history from the name. While the dish is Italian in origin, it actually derived from the medieval puddings of the English people, dishes better known for their inclusion of sausage and meats and blood than for cocoa powder, vanilla beans or granulated sugar. These Italian puddings notably turned down a sweet road instead of the savory one better traveled by the English. The texture and chewiness of animal protein was instead imitated with crushed cookies and candied nuts.
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In this way, budino is the creamy missing link between those savory old-world puddings and the thin, simplistic style favored by children in the U.S. today. So how do they compare? Well, American pudding is fairly simply just a combination of sugar, milk and a thickening agent. That thickener often takes the form of corn starch here in the states, but gelatin, rice or tapioca work just as well. Budino, on the other hand, is thickened with eggs. And instead of milk, cream usually serves as the liquid component. Owing to the richness of these two components, budino seems like a closer relative of custards, soufflés, trifles or even tiramisu than any powdered pudding mix you might find.
The first mention of the Italian dessert to appear here in the states was in a 1963 issue of San Fernando Valley Living, a small California newspaper of the day. The article in question described a dinner event of the Wine and Food Society of the San Fernando Valley in which Iberian wine pairings accompanied courses from “foreign lands” that Valley residents would certainly not have regular encounters with. The dessert course, budino Maltais, was listed as heralding from the tiny European island nation of Malta, just south of Italy. From there, mentions of budino trail off until the mid 1980s, when California chef and KCRW host Evan Kleiman listed the dessert on menus at her restaurant Angeli. A 1990 profile by Ruth Reichl of Kleiman in The Los Angeles Times included the chef’s recipe for ricotta budino, gently nudging the dish closer toward the mainstream once more. But then in 2017, the once obscure dessert was named “the dessert of Los Angeles” by Saveur.
So how does it taste? Beyond the rich, creamy mouthfeel that all budino recipes possess, that largely depends on who’s preparing the dish. You could probably find a straight-up chocolate or vanilla budino on a menu somewhere in California, but far more imaginative varieties abound. Bestia is known for a bittersweet chocolate budino tart served with salted caramel. Pizzeria Mozza serves up a butterscotch budino topped with caramel, sea salt and rosemary pine nut cookies. Hamasaku’s matcha budino is said to be to die for.
If you don’t call Los Angeles – or any of the other foodie Meccas with a robust Italian history and community, like New York and Chicago – home, all hope is hardly lost. Budino’s steady climb in prominence among chefs and restaurateurs has made the inevitable jump over to YouTube culinary personalities and internet test kitchens alike. Budino recipes now abound. And chances are, once you break out that electric mixer gathering dust in some dark corner cabinet of your kitchen, the muscle memory of whisking up a bowl of pudding will return to you, along with childhood nostalgia. Just make sure you save me a spoon to lick clean.