Kitchn Love Letters

Banana Bread Is Nice, but May I Suggest … Instant Pudding?

published Apr 14, 2020
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Chocolate instant pudding
Credit: Grace Elkus

During my time in quarantine, I have done many things that have brought me relative comfort. I have watched old movies (and have learned, in the process, that my husband had never before seen the 1961 Hayley Mills tour de force that is The Parent Trap). I have taught my 1-year-old — much to my panicked, heart-thumping, overprotective-mothering fear — to go down a slide on his own. I have watched my 3-year-old make a dinosaur out of Play-Doh. 

But mostly, I have cooked, and baked, and cooked, and baked. I have made things that are ambitious, like crackly-skinned roast chickens and butter-poached asparagus (with the ends peeled, like in the restaurants I used to visit). I have made sticky, glazed hot cross buns, which took days to prepare. I have made all kinds of things that I typically leaf over in cookbooks, because they usually take too much time or effort, and I am, usually, a busy mom with a love for cooking but too little time. 

Cooking to soothe my aching heart, though, has not only meant revisiting every complex culinary technique I learned in culinary school. When I want to please a different part of myself — the part prone only to nostalgia, and not to the rules and regulations of cooking that appeal to the angels of my ordered brain — I reach for the things that require nothing of me. I reach for instant pudding

Credit: Hannah Selinger

Instant Pudding Is the Comfort Food We All Need Right Now

The food that brings us comfort during a crisis doesn’t have to be complicated or even that great. It can be as simple, available, and nostalgic as instant pudding. When my mother used to make butterscotch pudding, she used to fool me by saying she was making something “from scratch.” I believed the ruse because I didn’t know what that really meant. Really, the thing my mother was doing was mixing hot milk with powder until it was heavy on the spoon, and letting it thicken in the fridge so that a skin formed. It was “scratch” because it didn’t come in a plastic cup in the refrigerator aisle. 

When I investigated my own pantry in the face of coronavirus outbreak, I found boxes of instant pudding just sitting there, staring at me. How long had they been there? What were they waiting for? I had bought them, maybe, for a toddler project — the one where you crumble Oreos up to look like dirt and stick gummy worms on top and the whole thing becomes a delightful, bespoke, edible diorama of the earth itself. Well apparently we never got to that, so there the pudding boxes remained, weathering a shelf-stable storm. 

I was so happy to see them. I was so happy, in fact, that I made the pudding and stood eating it straight from the pot, as it thickened right on the wooden spoon. I made all of the boxes, so that even though my toddler had missed his shot at the gummy worms and the crumbled Oreo dirt, he got to dip a spoon into instant pudding, skin and all. “The skin is the best part,” my husband told him, and that is a universal truth among instant pudding-lovers.

Of all of this magic, created from a single wayward box, it took so little to create something that made every one of us to feel a little more at home, a little better about the circumstances of our world. 

I bet you think there are better desserts out there (but are there?). If crisis is a clarion call to make the things that make us feel the best about our circumstances, please let us make instant pudding, again and again and again. It is easy. It requires so little of us, it’s almost criminal. Will you feel better reading this? I hope so. Will you feel better eating pudding? I know so. When everything else is hard to the point of impossible, do this one thing that produces a blanket of perfect. All you have to do is stir. 

This story is part of our Staying Home series, in which Kitchn editors and contributors share the recipes, tools, and habits that are helping them through the pandemic. As we work to flatten the curve, we’re cooking more, shopping less frequently, and looking for the good and the bright as much as we can. In this very disorienting time, here’s what’s keeping us going.