The vanilla bean gives us one of the more wonderful flavors to cook with. It lends itself perfectly to simple, easy comfort food like this pudding. It is a perfectly delicious antidote to fatigue... and nausea, and slippery enough to soothe a sore mouth or throat. If you can use a vanilla pod, do. And don’t throw it away afterwards. Not only are vanilla beans expensive, even after being scalded in milk they will still have some life left. Rinse the discarded pod, pat it dry and bury it in some sugar in an airtight bag. Leave it for a week, and you will have vanilla-infused sugar to sprinkle over berries or oatmeal or make more vanilla pudding.
Bring 2 cups of milk and leftover vanilla bean pod, if using, to a low boil in a saucepan.
In a bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt, vanilla bean seeds (if using extract, add in later), and cornstarch. Very gradually, whisking all the while, add the remaining ½ cup of milk, until smooth.
Whisking continuously, very gradually and slowly add in the warm milk. Return the mixture to the saucepan, and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until it returns to a low simmer. Stir in the extract if using or discard the vanilla pod.
Pour the mixture into 6 small ramekins or into one dish. Chill in the refrigerator until set, about 2 to 4 hours, or overnight.
Measure the cornstarch carefully. Heaping tablespoons will add more cornstarch than is needed, and make the consistency of the pudding too heavy.
If you do not like pudding skin, lay plastic wrap on top of the pudding before chilling.