Ever seen “carrageenan” at the end of the incomprehensible list of ingredients on the back of your ice cream tub or toothpaste tube? This mystery ingredient actually comes from one of several species of seaweed. One such species is carrageen (Chondrus crispus). While often used as a thickener for processed foods, carrageen—translated as either “little rock” or “moss of the rock” from Gaelic—is a delicacy in its native Ireland. Traditionally foraged from the coast, the seaweed is used as a gelling agent in a sweet, smooth local pudding. Flavored with vanilla, citrus, or chocolate, carrageen pudding is prized for its light texture and briny, almost spicy flavor.
On the south and west coasts of Ireland, the sea washes this webbed weed to shore. Bright maroon, pale green, reddish-black, or sandy tan, the seaweed (or moss, as it’s sometimes called) has thick, juicy tendrils that extrude a jelly-like substance when soaked in water. Traditional Irish cooks collect it from the coast, then dry it in the sun and store it in a jute bag, where it can keep for more than a year. To prepare the pudding itself, chefs simmer the carrageen with milk and vanilla until the moss starts extruding a thick jelly, then strain the mixture onto a beaten egg yolk to make a custard. This base is combined with beaten egg whites and cooled. When set, the dessert has a light, creamy bottom and a foamy, bubbled top.
Traditionally, Irish people prized carrageen pudding for both its taste and ostensible health qualities. Some Irish mothers wean their children using milk thickened with carrageen moss. Meanwhile, the light texture and nourishing milk protein of carrageen pudding has made it a traditional food during illness. Today, carrageen pudding is one of the many traditional delicacies that chefs in Ireland’s local food movement have reclaimed in farm-to-table restaurants and cooking schools.