Tapping back into tapioca

At 6p a packet, it's easy on the wallet. But can tapioca ever be a treat for the tastebuds?, asks Karyn.

TapiocaTapioca pudding is the worst school dinner of all time, according to a BBC Good Food survey carried out in 2003. Nicknamed 'frogspawn', it topped the magazine's poll. Former pupils of a certain age and above still grimace at the very mention of this dreaded dish.

I chanced upon tapioca in the supermarket last week and I couldn't resist buying some. I only spotted it because it was surrounded by colourful "special offer" signs. Really, it was the ridiculously low price that swayed me: a box of the stuff costs just six pence and makes 32 portions of pudding.

Awful school dinners may have clouded our memories - but with food prices rising and household budgets strained, is tapioca set for a comeback?

In other countries this starchy ingredient, made from the roots of the cassava plant, is consumed with gusto. In Brazil there are even tapiocaria restaurants, which specialise in tapioca-based dishes. Thomas Keller, acclaimed as one of the world's top chefs, is also a fan. At his French Laundry restaurant in California, he serves up tapioca with oysters and calls it 'Oysters and Pearls'. It is one of his signature dishes.

Closer to home, the trusty Oxford Companion to Food notes with sadness that tapioca pudding and its like are "sometimes despised by the ignorant, that is to say persons who have no knowledge of how good they are when properly made".

WhiskingBack in the kitchen, I decided to give the pudding my best shot. The box showed a bowl of off-white mush, decorated with summer fruits and amaretti. It was captioned, "A Delicious Low Fat Food". The mush vaguely resembled rice pudding; the recipes for both dishes are broadly similar, and splendidly simple.

Anxious to avoid a spartan 'school dinner', I followed a version of Mrs Beeton's recipe. I heated the tapioca and milk in a saucepan, stirring continuously. After the mixture had simmered for a quarter of an hour, I stirred in caster sugar, a little vanilla, butter and an egg, and baked the pudding in the oven for half an hour.

"It smells like rice pud!", said my husband hopefully, when I brought our bowls to the table. Then he dived in with his spoon, and his face fell.

Sadly, our tapioca pudding tasted nothing like rice pudding. Despite the additional ingredients, it had all the texture and taste of wallpaper paste. The tapioca pearls, soft and gelatinous, glinted in the lamplight. Not even hefty spoonfuls of Tiptree Jam could make our puddings palatable. We failed to clear our bowls - a rare occurrence, in this household. I fear that my 'bargain buy' is now destined to languish at the back of the store cupboard, gathering dust.

So where did I go wrong? Is it really possible to make a good tapioca pudding? Or is this dish well and truly beyond redemption?