I’m ashamed to admit I abandoned tapioca when I was ten because it reminded me of baby food, and the little things were creepy. I imagined bug eyes popping inside my mouth. But this unfair assessment changed recently when visiting a close friend and her father in his NY art studio. They have an unspoken father-daughter agreement – she makes him tapioca when she visits. If someone as talented as Nelson Shanks, an artist commissioned to paint popes and presidents, is passionate about tapioca – I was certainly willing to give it another chance. Jennifer makes a mean tapioca. Cowboys are big fans of tapioca too. My guess is it reminds cowboys of their mother – ultimate comfort food. If you tell them I said it, I will deny it.
Some of you know I’ve been caregiver for my mother in NYC this last year, far from my Idaho mountains. I came back to the ranch this week to help during calving season. It’s a dangerous and busy time. It’s also a beautiful time. Most things pale in comparison to witnessing the arrival of new life.
The ranch cabin is in remodel and everything from the kitchen is in boxes scattered about the house. Calving requires checks on the cows every two hours throughout the night – if a cow needs help delivering, or to bring a newborn to the barn. I wanted to make something easy, yet soothing, after being out in the cold. I went on a hunt for what was on hand, aware I was out of milk. The closest store on Sunday afternoon is a half-hour drive each way. My eyes rested upon a box of tapioca and a can of coconut milk. They sounded delicious together. Like Jennifer and her dad, tapioca seemed just the thing when surrounded by children and parents. Who cares if they’re cows.
After I tasted it, I wondered if I was the first to come up with something so brilliant. You guessed it. Google kindly informed me I was no genius - but I thought I was. That’s all that matters. (Are you really late to the party if you think you arrived on time?) Turns out, coconut tapioca pudding is so popular in Viet Nam it’s sold by street vendors on every corner. Who knew? I didn’t.
Do you know where tapioca comes from? I didn’t know that either. I’ve taken tapioca for granted. I admit it. Not unlike a city kid who thinks eggs and meat come from the grocery store. Tapioca is a starch extracted from the root of Manihot esculenta, more commonly known as cassava root. And gluten-free to boot. In India, tapioca refers to the whole root, not just the starch. C’mon, be honest. You never gave it a moment’s thought or assumed it was a grain of some kind, didn’t you?
I highly recommend this simple dessert on a lazy Sunday afternoon in winter. It’s good warm or cold. I made the quick method today since that’s what was on hand. When you have time, I recommend the long version – I’ll post the Vietnamese street vendors recipe soon. It takes longer, but it’s the real McCoy. There is value in being comfortable with a fast and slow version of many things in life. You and your spouse figured that out years ago. Life demands flexibility.
Here’s how you make it:
3 Tb tapioca (quick cook kind)
1 15 oz can coconut milk (lite or regular)
1 cup evaporated milk (or regular milk. add another cup of coconut milk if you’re dairy free)
1 egg, well beaten
1 tsp vanilla, or one vanilla bean split open and scraped.
1/3 cup sugar
Optional: 3-4 Tb sweetened coconut flakes. Toast lightly in a pan, or in the oven. Top each serving with a sprinkle of coconut.
Combine the tapioca, coconut milk, evaporated milk, and egg in a saucepan. Let it sit for a few minutes.
Turn the heat on medium and cook until it comes to a rolling boil. Stir continuously!
Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. It will continue to thicken as it cools.
That’s it! It couldn’t be easier.
Note: If you don’t want to stir it, throw all the ingredients except the vanilla, in a slow cooker. Low for 6-8 hours, or on High for 3-4 hours. Stir in the vanilla when it’s done.