Heat 4 cups of the milk in a large saucepan over medium heat until steaming.
Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup milk.
Whisk half of the hot milk into the egg mixture until smooth, then gradually whisk the egg-milk mixture into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture boils. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, until it has thickened to a puddinglike consistency, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Cool slightly, stirring a few times to prevent a skin from forming. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the pudding and refrigerate until completely cooled and thickened, about 4 hours.
Before serving, whisk the pudding vigorously until smooth and creamy.
Cookies and Cream: Crush 20 chocolate wafer cookies, stir some into the pudding and top with the rest.
Fresh Berries and Gingersnaps: Fold in 2 cups of fresh, mixed berries and top with about 12 finely crushed gingersnaps.
Vanilla-Banana: Fold in 3 sliced bananas. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Fold in 24 crushed vanilla wafer cookies and top with more sliced bananas.
Rocky Road: Fold in 1 cup each mini marshmallows and toasted chopped walnuts and 1/2 cup of mini chocolate chips. Sprinkle with more chocolate chips.
Peanut Butter* and Jelly (See Cook's Note): Fold in 1 cup quartered red grapes and 1/3 cup each chopped roasted peanuts and peanut butter chips. Top with whole grapes.
Some people have allergies to peanuts, and if serving to guests, please make them aware of the inclusion of this peanut product.
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