Monday, March 24, 2014

Butterscotch Pudding for My Dad

A couple of years ago, Penzey's spices gave away bumper stickers that said, "Love people. Cook them good food." I think most people who enjoy cooking understand that directive in a deep way. Cooking is such an act of nurturing, whether of other people or just yourself. More than providing sustenance, it can be an act of great love. Trying to please someone else by preparing food you think or know that they will enjoy is one of the best gifts you can give.

Usually this blog, and other food blogs, are about pushing boundaries, trying new things, and even (dare I say it?) showing off. American food culture has come so far in the last several decades that there's a never-ending source of things to cook and taste and write about. A lot of the food I think of as commonplace would have seemed exotic when I was in my teens and twenties, if it was even available. Like most of my peers, I typically steer away from the packaged and processed foods of my youth towards fresh ingredients, not to mention artisan this and organic that. I grew up in a household where scratch cooking was still the order of the day, but so was Cool Whip and Spaghetti-Os. It was the 70s, what can I say?

I've written quite a bit about my family recipes and culinary traditions, but today's post is special. My father has been very ill the last few months. The dreaded C word. Today he went to hospice. He's is alert and not in any pain, just needs care that we can no longer give him at home.

One of the issues we've faced is that he has no appetite, and many foods irritate his mouth. He's been living on Ensure and milk and yogurt and the like. Last weekend I picked up the ingredients for two of his favorite desserts in hopes of tempting him to eat a little more. The day after I arrived I asked him if he'd eat either one if I made it, and he chose one as being a likely candidate.

I measured out the milk into a saucepan, substituting a little half-and-half to boost the calorie content. I dumped in the package of Jell-O butterscotch pudding mix, whisked it in, and set it over the heat. Just like a million times in my childhood, I stirred the mixture as it gradually, gradually heated, making sure it didn't stick or lump up. Stirring a pot of pudding on the stove when you start with cold milk seems like a never-ending chore. I'm not the most patient person in the world, and I always thought that the person who wrote "a watched pot never boils" should have referred to pudding instead.

After what seemed like a year, though suddenly, as always, it started simmering and came to the boil that would cause it to thicken properly. Quickly, quickly, I poured the steaming mixture into four custard cups, leaving them on the counter to cool a bit before popping into the fridge. When they were sufficiently cool, Dad decided he'd try one. A little whipped cream from a can completed the dish.

He'd had some of those plastic cups with various pudding flavors, including butterscotch. But this ... this he ate with as much relish as anything these last few weeks. He even commented that it had a really good flavor, and ate nearly the whole thing -- a major accomplishment.

So yes, I'm a big fan of scratch cooking, and I don't make much from a package these days. Sometimes, though, the packaged stuff is just what the doctor ordered.