I’m not sure if I have alluded to my early dessert history, but I will say that it was pretty box-mix-centric. Growing up, the only dessert my family made from scratch was cookies. Everything else was only semi-homemade. Rice Krispie treats were a common player, as were Betty Crocker cake mixes baked into 13×9 pans and slathered with Pillsbury canned frosting while the cake was still warm, and Duncan Hines brownies.
But on nights when we needed dessert and we needed it fast, we could always scrounge up a box of JELL-O instant pudding mix. It was simple enough that my sister and I could make it without adult supervision. It’s literally just mixing milk with the little packet of magic powder they give you and popping it in the fridge for 5 minutes. (Sure, you could wait longer, but as children, even 5 minutes seemed like an eternity to wait for pudding.) The hardest thing about that recipe was making sure we had a whole 2 cups of milk in the house.
My mom had these parfait glasses we liked to use for our instant pudding, because somehow they made us feel fancy, despite the fact that the dessert they housed cost us less than a dollar and 10 minutes of our time. Not all the glasses matched, so I liked to make sure I got one that held the most pudding. I’m a generous person, but when it comes to pudding, I will knock your teeth out for a chance at more. Especially if that pudding happens to be pistachio pudding.
I have never purchased a box of instant pistachio pudding in my adult life, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t continued to eat it. That’s what family dinners are for. In fact, the only reason I still tolerate my mother-in-law is because she keeps making Watergate Salad at family dinners. (For those of you who don’t know, Watergate Salad is a mixture of pineapple, pistachio pudding mix, marshmallows, chopped nuts, and Cool Whip. In other words, the most delicious potluck-style recipe ever invented.)
It was when my MIL made pistachio muffins and wasn’t satisfied with the flavor that I got curious about “pistachio” flavored items. I had a sneaking suspicion that most commercial pistachio-flavored things, like pudding and ice cream, use The World’s Greatest Extract, also known as almond extract. And I was correct (unsurprisingly, because I’m a genius). If you look at JELL-O’s ingredient list on their pistachio pudding, almonds are the third ingredient (after two kinds of sugar), while pistachios only make up “less than 2%” of the ingredients. After that comes “artificial flavor,” which I would bet money is an almond flavoring.
I wanted to emulate the JELL-O pudding flavor, rather than simply making a “true” pistachio pudding. So, I used half almonds and half pistachios (hey, 50% is a drastic improvement from a mere 2%) and a teensy bit of almond extract to boost the flavor. Of course, the color still doesn’t match the pale, mint-green of the box mix, but only because I decided I didn’t want food dye in my pudding. Real pistachios are not that color, folks. Sorry to burst that bubble.
I don’t have any schmancy parfait glasses yet, so ramekins will have to do for this box-mix knockoff. Is it as easy as just adding milk? Nope. But, ultimately, isn’t making something from scratch so much more satisfying? I’d like to think so.
- ¼ cup (40 grams) raw unsalted pistachios
- ¼ cup (40 grams) raw blanched almonds
- ⅔ cup (140 grams) granulated sugar, divided
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 cups (480 mL) whole milk
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons (15 grams) cornstarch
- pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- Whipped cream* (optional)
- Roughly chopped pistachios, toasted (optional)
- Combine pistachios and almonds in a skillet. Heat over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until nuts are fragrant. Let cool completely.
- Transfer nuts to the bowl of a food processor. Add ⅓ cup (70 grams) sugar. Process until nuts are a fine powder. Add water and pulse until a paste forms.
- In a large saucepan, whisk together nut paste and milk. Heat over medium-high heat until simmering.
- In the meantime, whisk together remaining ⅓ cup (70 grams sugar), egg yolks, cornstarch, and salt in a medium mixing bowl. The mixture will clump up at first and may get caught in your whisk; just shake it out and continue whisking until the mixture is smooth and pale yellow in color.
- When milk is simmering, remove from heat. Slowly ladle 1 cup of milk mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return tempered egg mixture back to the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture.
- Return saucepan to medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until pudding starts to bubble. Stir for another 45-60 seconds, until thickened. Remove from heat.
- Stir in butter and extracts until butter is melted. Divide pudding among 4-6 ramekins/serving bowls. (If you think there are cooked egg bits in your pudding or you want a smoother pudding without any little nut pieces, strain it through a fine mesh strainer into a medium bowl first.) Cover each serving with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic against the surface of the pudding. Chill for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
- If desired, top with whipped cream and chopped, toasted pistachios.
- *For whipped cream, whisk together ½ cup heavy cream, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract until soft peaks form.