Small pearl tapioca pudding

I remember my mom making tapioca pudding when I was little, with the little “fish eggs” or “eyeballs” in it as I used to call them.  For a long time, I was buying the instant tapioca from the grocery store, and this works well for pies and quick tapioca, but I wanted to use the small pearl type that I can find at my local grocery store, Rainbow Grocery.

When looking online for recipes, they seemed quite diverse, with many calling for soaking the tapioca balls in milk or water for 30 minutes before cooking.  The next step usually involved cooking and stirring constantly for somewhere around 15 minutes or more.  Soaking the tapioca balls in water or milk didn’t seem to do much for me at all.  Cooking them right away didn’t work either:  the liquid just got thick before the balls were cooked, and I ended up with chalky tapioca centers. Since I wanted a recipe that fit my schedule and after trying several existing ones, I decided to branch off on my own.

What I learned from my experiments was that tapioca takes time.  It seems that it takes a good 30-60 minutes for the liquid to penetrate the small pearl tapioca balls (and much longer for large pearl!).  The other thing I learned was how I end up making such a dessert:  I often get home from work, think about dinner, and realize that I’d like to have something for dessert as well.  So if I start the tapioca before dinner, and it takes me about 1 hour to make and eat dinner on a weeknight, I figured there should be a way for me to have a reasonable dessert in the time I wanted.  The recipe below is what I came up with.  Please post a comment if it works for you!

Mix all the ingredients except the flavoring

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups milk (can use water only if necessary, but results will be “gluey” )
  • 1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1-2 eggs (optional).  Eggs will give the pudding more body and a richer taste.

Flavor options (try one option)

  • 2 tsp vanilla extract or 1/2 whole vanilla bean, scraped.  Add at the end of cooking to preserve the aroma.
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom and 1 Tablespoon rosewater (similar to Mediterranean desserts).   The Cardamom clumps if added to the liquid quickly, so sprinkle it in while stirring quickly.
  • Lemon peel and cinnamon (Greek style)

Method:

Cooking tapioca on very low heat

Measure the 4 cups of milk into a sauce pan.  Add the tapioca, sugar, and egg (if using).  Mix vigorously with a whisk to incorporate all the egg into the milk.  Place on a burner as low as possible.  The goal here is to get the liquid to heat up slowly and not to boil.  Set a timer for 30 minutes, and adjust the temperature as needed.  Stir every 5-10 minutes to break up the tapioca on the bottom of the pan. If the liquid comes to a simmer, just turn off the heat, add a cover, and allow the tapioca to stay warm.

At the end of 30 minutes, check to see if the tapioca is done (taste some).  If the balls are still undone, you can bring the pot to a simmer and then let it sit for a while longer to thicken.  If the balls are almost done, you can also just let the pudding sit for a half hour, and it will thicken more as it cools down slowly.  It will thicken much more as it cools, so don’t worry if it’s a little runny when you turn off the heat.  Add the vanilla or other flavors when it comes off the burner to rest.