In Cheap Tricks we’ll help you make the most out of everyday supermarket staples. Today, the magic of instant pudding mix.
Only a few years ago, I was a pastry cook working in some fine and fancy New York City restaurants making things like candied olive dust and liquefied cookies. If you told me then that one day I’d write an ode to a boxed mix, I would have sooner believed a story about a two (or is it three?) year pandemic. “A boxed mix?” I would have asked. “Instant what?” I would have blanched. What a fool I was! Today, I stand before you and declare loud and proud: Instant pudding mix, ILYSM. I’ll probably never make another tiramisù without it; it’s the reason an icebox cake I made last summer has a rabid fan base among my friends; and it’s a key player in Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding. My one regret is that instant pudding mix and I didn’t meet sooner!
To be clear, I never actually make plain pudding with instant pudding mix. What I’m really after is the miracle ingredient that’s mixed in with the sugar and flavoring: modified cornstarch. When a starch—be it corn, wheat, tapioca—is chemically or physically modified, it starts behaving in entirely unexpected ways. Think about the cornstarch in your pantry. It thickens liquids like soup or pie filling only when heated. But when mixed with cold water, it’s merely a white sludge at the bottom of the bowl. Modified cornstarch, on the other hand, starts setting up in cold liquids like water or milk without any heat. Translation: a no-cook thickener. Think about the possibilities! (Haters will say “oh, but modified anything must be bad for you” to which I volley with the acknowledgment that nothing ultra-processed is inherently good for you, but a box or two once in a while ain’t about to kill ya.)
There are many types of modified starches with thousands of commercial uses, but in the context of instant pudding, it serves two great purposes in my kitchen:
It’s an essential addition to make-ahead whipped cream that stays fluffy for hours on end.It’s a spectacular substitute in recipes that normally call for cooking eggs and dairy to make a custard (like pastry cream).
Here are three things I turn to instant pudding mix for again and again:
Valiant Whipped Cream
If you’ve ever made whipped cream at home to plop on top of cakes, pies, sundaes, or shortcakes, you know it can go from dreamy cloud to hot mess real fast. For a billowy whipped cream that holds its shape and rivals the kind in that strudel scene from Inglourious Basterds, add 1 Tbsp. instant vanilla pudding mix and 2 tsp. powdered sugar to every 1 cup heavy cream you’re whipping. A pinch of kosher salt and ¼ tsp. vanilla extract help round out the flavor. The pudding mix just barely thickens the cream, absorbs excess moisture, and prevents it from separating, increasing the lifespan of your whipped cream from a measly average of 4 hours to a groundbreaking 24.
Extremely Easy Pastry Cream
So many classic desserts contain a custard at their heart. But making a custard on the stovetop with eggs and dairy can be a harrowing experience—cook it too long and it scrambles, cook it too little and it never sets. There’s the whisking, the cooling, and the whisking while cooling. It’s too much! This is when a box of pudding mix whispers my name, promising me ease and soothing my anxiety better than any tele-therapist ever could. Whip 1 quart heavy cream, one (3.5-oz.) package instant vanilla pudding mix, ⅓ cup sugar, 1 tsp. kosher salt, and 1 tsp. vanilla paste or extract until thick. Use this as a filling for fruit tarts and cream puffs, layered in a trifle, or folded into sliced bananas and vanilla wafers for bakery-worthy banana pudding.
No-Cook, Egg-Free Tiramisù
If you love tiramisù but can’t be bothered with making a traditional zabaglione for the base, or you just don’t like the thought of barely-cooked eggs in your dessert, instant pudding is your pal. Bolstered with a heavy glug of marsala and some mascarpone, it becomes the perfect blanket for coffee-dipped ladyfingers. Whip 16 oz. mascarpone, 2 cups heavy cream, ⅓ cup marsala, ¼ cup powdered sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla extract, and 1 tsp. kosher salt with one (3.5-oz.) box instant vanilla pudding until creamy, dreamy, and fluffy. Saturate store-bought ladyfingers with freshly brewed coffee and layer in a large dish with the mascarpone cream, drifting cocoa powder between each layer for an inky, bittersweet contrast.
If anyone dares to look down their nose at your instant pudding infatuation, look them in the eye and tell them it’s “pastry cream powder.” In my experience, that will shut them up.