The Proof Is in the Pudding (Cake)
Does a 2021 recipe for lemon pudding cake stack up to its 1921 predecessor? Or would a mid-century upstart upstage them both?
Everything old is new again. This is true of fashion and art, as well as recipes that sometimes reappear as counterpoints to more modern culinary interpretations. Older is not necessarily better, of course, but it can be fun to compare how ingredients and proportions have changed over the decades and gauge the effects of both on the final product, especially if the older recipe is a family favorite.
In a recent test case, the family favorite was a lemon dessert. While scanning the cooking section of The New York Times this past week, my wife happened to see a recipe for “Lemon Pudding Cake.” As keeper of a vast catalogue of cherished family recipes — some now a century old and handwritten by her grandmother, Lorena Bradley Johnson, in cloth-covered accounting ledgers — my wife can evaluate recipes quickly and thoroughly based on her own cooking expertise.
I learned that a similar lemon dessert first appeared in Lorena’s 1921 ledger, which she started when she and her husband left Arcata, California to homestead on land in Canada.
It was immediately clear to my wife that the modern recipe’s dash of buttermilk — and its proportion of lemon juice and rind — would add some acidic bite to what would be an aggressive lemon taste. Being a big lemon fan, that sounded great to me. Still, having enjoyed so many of Lorena’s recipes over the years, I didn’t want to bet against the old standard, which my wife soon found in one of her grandmother’s neatly penned ledgers. It was simply titled “Lemon Dessert.”
One of the hazards of cooking from old recipes like this one is that precision often yields to presumption. Seasoned cooks like Lorena, many of whom began their culinary lessons on wood stoves and chilled their foods in ice boxes, knew what they were doing from experience. In this case my wife explained to me, fold in whites of eggs means whip the egg whites until they just reach the stiff peak stage, and fold the whipped whites gently into the above mixture to retain as much air as possible. Juice of one lemon means about one tablespoon of juice. And when it comes to adding the milk, add it at the same time you add the lemon juice — instructions that were missing from the recipe. Lastly, bake in a pan of water means pour the pudding mixture into an appropriately sized, well-buttered glass or ceramic baking dish that has been set in a baking pan filled half-way with water, and bake.
Of course, at a time when everything was cooked from scratch and measurements were often eyeballed, these instructions would have been self-evident. Indeed, many of Lorena’s cookie recipes simply list the ingredients and amounts, with the instruction to bake. That reservoir of knowledge, needed to correctly combine and transform ingredients, came from standing in the kitchen next to the Lorenas of that era.
But back to the task at hand: lemon desserts. Comparing the ingredient lists of the 1921 and 2021 recipes also revealed some interesting twists. The 1921 version had one less egg, a bit less sugar, less butter, less flour, less rind, and a lot less lemon juice (the juice of one lemon instead of 1/4 cup lemon juice) than the 2021 version. And, of course, there’s no buttermilk in the original, which instead called for the creamy high-fat milk of yesteryear, which in this case came straight from the family dairy cow.
Both recipes were quick, and for my wife anyway, easy to prepare. The modern version was topped with raspberries, and while the vintage rival didn’t specifically mention whipped cream, whipped cream was part of Lorena’s canon. For that reason, it seemed a fair and consistent addition.
The taste test wasn’t blind or in any way scientific. I opted to sample the modern preparation first. It was, indeed, very lemon forward with a warm and welcoming souffle-like texture. The raspberries gave it added heft. And who can argue with the perfect pairing of lemon and raspberries?
Well, it turns out, Lorena can. The 1921 version was soft, succulent, and with its lemon flavor buoyant but restrained, it was a cloud-like dessert not limited to big lemon lovers. Moreover, the dollop of sweetened whipped cream I added to the top provided richness, but not heft. The combination was a delicate melt-away delight not meant to be stored even for a day, but instead ready be eaten as soon as it cooled.
Had I not had the 1921 recipe with which to compare, I would have sung the praises of The New York Times version far and wide. But while it was very good, it made its statement by assaulting the taste buds. The older version massaged them instead. Despite my love of lemons, I much preferred the soft touch to the heavy hand.
At this point, I imagined the story was over. But then a 1961, modified version of Lorena’s lemon dessert surfaced in a later ledger. The recipe had undergone a few changes over the years. For one, the dessert was now officially called “Lemon Puff Pudding.” There was a bit more sugar, butter, and flour; one more egg; and a precise amount of lemon juice (while still significantly less than the amount in The New York Times recipe). The instructions were also far more explicit. There was no more confusion about whipping the egg whites! Better yet, there was a specific suggestion for serving the dessert with whipped cream, which proves that some recipes can improve over the years.
Adding to our unscientific sampling, my wife decided to make this updated version and have me taste-test against the 1921 model. The differences were subtle — a little cakier and lemony overall, a little less delicate, but still supple and soft tasting. I was hard-pressed to rate one ahead of the other.
After a few more minutes of taste-testing, I realized that if Lorena made the changes after countless remakes in the intervening decades, who was I to say that 1961 wasn’t the best? Then I noticed her notation next to the word pudding: Good with a star. That settled it. Don’t mess with the best, a maxim for all novice cooks as they begin their journey to gastronomic triumph.