Here is a dessert I learned to make as a kid and updated with adult sensibility. Native Hong Kong cuisine has a lot of fusion dishes with equal parts Cantonese and colonial British influence. Dim sum restaurant is a wonderful breeding ground for such innovation with its small plate dining concept. Sunday dim sum brunch with my grandparents always included classic stalwarts like har gow 蝦餃 shrimp dumplings and shumai 燒賣 pork dumplings. But there would be treats for the kids and baked tapioca pudding was my top favourite. The very western baked vanilla pudding is given an Asian twist with tapioca pearls and swirls of sweetened lotus seed paste 蓮蓉 or azuki bean paste 豆沙. I burned my lips many times because the hot pudding was just too tempting.
It did not take long before I learned to make my own under my mother’s supervision. The ubiquitous recipe came printed on the iconic yellow box of cornstarch that was found in every household. Actually, it still comes with every box. See the 80s magazine clipping on the left (that perm!) and my fresh box of cornstarch on the right? It’s reassuring to know that something doesn’t change.
The problem is, it did not taste very good now that I think about it. Much too rubbery! I should not be surprise since the cornstarch-heavy recipe came from the cornstarch company. Actually, even the ones I ate at dim sum restaurants were like that. I much prefer my pudding on the softer side.
I developed my version of baked tapioca pudding based on classic stovetop vanilla pudding. Instead of baking the custard in the oven until thickened, I cook it on the stovetop for better control of consistency. The broiler is used to give a burnished look to the pudding skin before baking to serve warm. My tapioca pudding mounds nicely on a spoon but still runny enough to be delicate. The use of custard powder is a nod to the pudding’s colonial roots but can easily be substituted with cornstarch. After all, it is only cornstarch with flavouring and annatto added for the distinctive yellow colour. With egg yolks in this vibrant shade of orange, my pudding really didn’t need the extra help.
The filling is where we can get creative. Sweetened lotus seed paste and sweetened azuki bean paste are readily available in Asian grocers. They are the classic dessert filling for Chinese pastries (hello mooncake!) and key to this dessert’s Hong Kong flair. If that is not your cup of tea, you can use sweetened chestnut puree (crème de marrons), speculoo spread, Nutella, peanut butter, almond butter, you get the idea.
Baked Tapioca Pudding with Azuki Swirl 西米豆沙焗布甸
- 100g small tapioca pearls
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons custard powder (or substitute with equal amount of cornstarch)
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 100g / 8 tablespoons granulated sugar (can be reduced to 6 tablespoons for less sweetness)
- 310mL / 1 1/4 cup evaporated milk
- 250mL / 1 cup water
- 30g / 2 tablespoons salted butter (or substitute with unsalted butter and pinch of salt)
- 250g sweetened azuki bean paste
- Bring 1L of water to boil in a small saucepan. Add tapioca pearls into saucepan, turn off heat, and cover with lid. Soak for about 30-45 minutes until pearls are translucent. Give them a stir every 10 minutes to rid of clumps.
- Rinse tapioca pearls with a fine mesh sieve under cold water. Set aside to drain.
- In a large glass mixing bowl, whisk together egg yolks, custard powder, cornstarch, sugar, and 1/4 cup evaporated milk. Set the bowl on top of a wet dish towel to anchor securely.
- Scald remaining evaporated milk and 1 cup of water in small saucepan. With one hand pouring hot liquid into mixing bowl in a thin stream, vigorously whisk the egg mixture with the other hand at the same time. This prevents the egg yolks from turning into scrambled eggs.
- Pour custard back into the saucepan over medium high heat. Stir constantly with silicone spatula until custard thickens with first few bubbles breaking the surface. Pour immediately into glass mixing bowl.
- Fold in tapioca pearls to quickly cool down the custard. Stir in butter until melted and homogenous. (see illustration)
- Set oven rack about 8 inches from broiler and preheat to low broil setting. Divide pudding evenly between 6 broiler-proof custard cups, about 1/4 cup of pudding each. Scatter small blobs of azuki paste over pudding, depending on how generous you feel. Top each cup with remaining pudding and smooth the top. (see illustration)
- Place filled custard cups on a large baking sheet and broil until the top is burnished with spots. Watch carefully and do not walk away from the oven. Mine took about 3 minutes. Turn off broiler and set oven temperature to 375F. Bake for 10 minutes until pudding is warm. Serve immediately.