Tapioca pudding is one of those funny desserts that almost nobody eats anymore. I think the reason has to do with changing tastes in part, but only in part. More likely, anybody who ever enjoyed it homemade has also noticed the world of difference between it and the industrially manufactured sort. Some things survive being made in a factory, and some don't. Tapioca pudding is a simple and flavorful egg custard, and I've simply never seen a good processed egg custard.
Way back when, I lived in Lancaster for three years. When we would drive between there and New York, we would stop by a small roadside restaurant/hotel that was slowly dying since the highway had been moved. They still served a traditional, generous all you could eat breakfast of many small dishes, and we loved it. It was the first time I had ever enjoyed tapioca pudding, and I managed to wheedle the recipe out of them. Here it is for you to enjoy (and a special thanks to Haag's Hotel):
You will need:
1. 1 cup pearl tapioca
2. 1 quart whole milk
3. 1/3 cup sugar
4. 3 eggs
5. Vanilla extract
Pour the tapioca pearls into a mixing bowl and fill with cold water until a couple of inches above the pearls. I am assuming you are using the more generally found tapioca here which doesn't swell to gigantic sizes (~1/2 inch or 1.25 cm in diameter). If you aren't sure, feel free to add more cold water- you can have too little, but you can't have too much. Stick the bowl into your fridge overnight or 12-14 hours.
The next part is traditionally done with a double boiler, but I just use a wide-bottomed 3 qt saucepan over a medium heat. It's up to you. I'm going to assume that you are like me and use a saucepan.
The next day, drain the pearls and set aside. Then crack and whip the three eggs. Combine the eggs, sugar, and milk in your saucepan. Heat over a medium heat and stir with a rubber spatula. Keep stirring until the milk is scalded. Scalded milk is at the point where the temperature is just hot enough to start leaving a thick residue on the sides of the pot- in other words, just below a simmer. Make sure you are always scraping the bottom and sides with your rubber spatula. You stir it constantly, but don't need to go crazy whipping it in a frenzy. This will take ten-fifteen minutes.
Once the milk has scalded, add the pearls. Continue to heat over medium and stirring for another ten minutes or so. The cool tapioca will have cooled the milk, so it takes a while to come up to temperature. The pearls will clarify and begin to float to the top as you stir. The milk will also thicken to a creamy chowder consistency. Once all of the pearls are floating and the sauce has thickened, the sauce will have about reached the boiling point. Decant the pudding into a large bowl. Add vanilla extract to taste.
You can eat it hot, but its nicer if you cover the bowl and let sit in the fridge until cold. Since it takes a long time to make, and is no less effort to make a small amount than a large amount, plus since it keeps for a few days, you often find yourself eating it for a few days. If you can hold off for 1-2 days after sticking it in the fridge, you'll notice the consistency drastically alter from the custard-pudding texture to the more gelatinous treat. It's chunkier and very nice, very different.