Ever Since Proust famously experienced an epiphany of memory over a crumbly madeleine cake, it has been more than a cliché to muse on the power of food memories. We all have countless triggers: the delicate powdery cookies my Austrian grandmother made at Christmas, Great-Aunt Marcie's soft caramels, my mother's gravy. However, it is only once you become an expatriate that the full force of the issue really hits you. I have lived in nearly 18 years in three different countries now and I have to say that in my experience - personal and observed - food is the single biggest trigger for homesickness and the one issue that unites everyone, gourmet cook and food slob alike. In fact, to be honest, it's usually the non cooks who suffer the most, as they are the ones who rely on packaged goods that are not available in their new country. An American in Paris may not be able to find Philadelphia brand cream cheese or soft brown sugar, but he or she can find something close enough to substitute for a delicious cheesecake or chocolate chip cookies. (Kiri cheese and sucre roux, for those who are interested.) However, the poor sod whose Thanksgiving depends on Stouffer's Stove Top Stuffing, will find himself trekking halfway across town to one of the American specialty shops and nearly fainting at the thought of forking over 7 euros for what is essentially a box of flavored bread crumbs. But trek across town he will, because it's Just Not The Same with an unfamiliar stuffing.
When I first arrived in Europe, I was determined to immerse myself in the local culture and turned my back on American food. In Bavarian beer gardens, I ate steckerlfisch and and consumed vast quantities of Edelstof and schnapps. In Paris, I happily explored the 365 cheeses and ate, well, everything in sight: snails, frog legs, steack-frites, moules-frites, crêpes and pastries. I turned into the ultimate Francophile snob, informing visitors how superior a croque-monsieur was to an American grilled cheese sandwich, how they would never find a baguette in American to compare with a Parisian one. (Though I did loftily admit that a friend of mine had told me of a bakery in the Seattle Pike Place market which had bread that was was made by a Frenchman, in a French stove, with French flour - which was "not bad".) But over time, I found more and more food items sneaking into my suitcase when I returned from visits to the US. Smoked oysters and Triscuits. Concentrated cranberry juice. Baking powder and yeast. Reese's peanut butter cups. And I came to realize that although French food might be vastly superior to American food in general (and I do say might: the Critic would disagree completely) in your heart of hearts, nothing can replace the food you grew up with.
Now that I am the mother of two boys with American and British passports, another truth has become apparent. Not only do we crave the food of our childhood, but we yearn to pass it along to our children. While I am delighted that my boys will have happy memories of Cadbury's chocolate and the fish and chips van that comes to the village every Tuesday, I also want them to remember fresh picked Illinois sweet corn and trick or treating on a cold October evening. In short, like every parent, I want it all for my kids. And while I can't change the fact that "pudding" will forever mean "dessert" in their little half-British minds, I can at least ensure they know and appreciate what an American means by "chocolate pudding" . Chocolate pudding may not come in a little cardboard box here (one of my earliest cooking triumphs was making Jello brand chocolate pudding) but it's almost as easy to make with ingredients in your cupboard. Well, in my cupboard anyway.
Chocolate Pudding for the Homesick American (or any child)
Although I generally try to remember to weigh my dry ingredients in metric measures for European readers, on this occasion I completely forgot. However, the proportions are not set in stone and the amount of sugar will depend on your tastes and your chocolate.
1/2 cup sugar
3 Tbs cornflour (Maizena in France)
dash of salt
1/3 cup cocoa powder
3 oz. / 85 g of baker's chocolate (I used Williams and Sonoma fondue chocolate buttons that someone gave me for a Christmas some time ago)
2 cups semi-skimmed milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract (optional - I just love the flavor of vanilla and almond combined with chocolate)
Thoroughly mix the dry ingredients in the bottom of a saucepan until no crumbs or clumps remain. Drizzle a tiny amount of milk and stir into a paste. Keep gradually adding the milk, being careful not to allow clumps of dry paste to form. Once all the milk is incorporated, add the vanilla and the almond extract. Place over a medium heat and bring gently to a boil, stirring consistently. Do not turn your back on it for two minutes to look after a needy two year old as it will undoubtedly start to boil the second you do. Once the mixture is boiling, turn the heat down and continue to cook for another minute; the pudding should already be thickening nicely. Beware of the splatters of hot pudding which can erupt from the boiling mass as they will be very hot. (Big Brother, who was helping me, was banished from the stove at this point, much to his irritation. "I t'an't SEE!" he complained.) Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate. Continue stirring until it is completely melted and incorporated in the pudding. Pour into six parfait glasses and either serve warm or put in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to finish setting. Consume with great relish.
Weight Watchers note: this recipes makes six servings of four points each, not bad for a very chocolate-y delicious dessert!