Maybe it’s all that boba that’s been floating around in frothy milk teas. Or maybe it’s a nod to nostalgia and the creamy tapioca pudding of childhood memories. Maybe it’s a little of both. Whatever the reason, something has inspired chefs to grab the tapioca from the shelf and create inspired, sophisticated desserts. These are tapioca desserts refined.
“Tapioca takes on any flavor you give it,” says Josef Centeno, executive chef at Opus Restaurant. “It’s a blank canvas, perfect for experimenting, so the possibilities are endless.”
Maybe that’s why so many pastry chefs are embracing tapioca, turning out show-stopping creations that also happen to be easy for home cooks to make.
At Opus, Centeno tops cinnamon tapioca with a brulee crust. Break through the crunchy, caramelized crown and a velvety pudding packed with tapioca is revealed. Served with Centeno’s dried-cherry gastrique, caramel sauce spiked with a generous amount of Banyuls vinegar, it’s a tart-sweet mosaic of eye-popping flavors.
Tapioca may not usually evoke glamour, but it is showing up in elegant dishes. (Thomas Keller’s famed “oysters and pearls” is a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar.) At Guy Savoy in Las Vegas, it’s elevated to a stunning dessert: a tapioca speckled with vanilla bean seeds and lined with a ruby-red gelee concentrated with the flavor of strawberries. At Wilshire in Santa Monica, a light, airy tapioca is served with macerated late-harvest peaches touched with fresh mint.
Tapioca gets its delicate flavor and distinctive texture from dried, powdered cassava root. The powdered root is mixed with water to form dough, then shaped into small spheres and dried (tapioca pearls); dried and flaked (granulated tapioca); partially cooked, dried and finely ground (quick-cooking or instant tapioca); or dried and powdered (tapioca flour). Because of the high starch content of cassava root, tapioca is often used as a binder.
For a light and creamy pudding, steer clear of quick-cooking or granulated tapioca. The processed flakes release too much starch, turning into a dense, congealed cafeteria-style pudding. Choose tapioca pearls instead; the quality of the pearls can make a difference as well.
Pearls are sold in several sizes, usually 2, 4 or 6 millimeters, but you’ll find them as small as 1 mm and up to the size of a small marble. The largest pearls break down more easily and can release a lot of starch.
“Really big pearls are a mouthful,” says pastry chef Uyen Nguyen of Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. “The small pearls are more subtle and delicate, complementing the dish without dominating it.”
Nguyen layers vanilla tapioca pudding with a vibrant, jammy strawberry gelee and fresh strawberries.
The 2-mm pearls, often labeled small pearls, are good substitutes for granulated tapioca in classic pudding recipes, imparting a chewy texture without leaching too much starch. Soak the pearls according to package directions, if required, and cook them until tender.
Nguyen recommends buying from a reputable source. “If your tapioca pearls aren’t well made, they may break apart during cooking, releasing too much starch and making the pudding sticky,” she says. It’s especially important to buy good-quality pearls for use in a recipe like Nguyen’s that calls for extended soaking and cooking, to keep them from getting mushy.
Choose larger 4-mm pearls (often labeled “large pearls” in grocery stores) to play up tapioca’s texture. Bigger pearls are a little chewier due to their size.
“Large pearls have an interesting, almost addictive texture,” says Danielle Keene, pastry chef at Wilshire in Santa Monica. “So the pudding becomes all about the tapioca.”
Keene recommends soaking large pearls before using them. “Unsoaked, large-pearl tapioca can be finicky,” she says. Soak pearls for a few hours or overnight to ensure they cook evenly.
Sona pastry chef Karen Yoo prefers to rinse tapioca before cooking. “Like washing rice,” she says, “it removes the external starch, so the pearls are chewy, not sticky.”
At Wilshire, Keene uses the soaking liquid (milk) as the pudding base. Many recipes recommend discarding the soaking liquid, full of starch from the tapioca, using fresh milk to cook the tapioca instead. But Keene lightens the pudding with whipped cream, giving it a billowy, mousse-like texture.
Cooking times for tapioca vary, so rely on your taste buds, not the package directions, to determine when the tapioca is cooked. They should be clear, without any white flecks. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the pudding’s surface to keep it from forming a milky film on top as it cools. Served with peaches macerated in citrus syrup, it’s beautifully simple and delicious. No double-wide straw required.