Last night a friend and I got to talking about our grandmothers; her grandma Ruby, who lives in a home in Drumheller and is starting to forget things (including her), and my grandma Woodall (Madelon), who was a great baker until the day she had a stroke and lost most of her ability to move. And standing at the back of a room full of people at a small work-related party I suddenly missed her so much – and was so sad for my mom having lost her 10 years ago, and sad for my friend for being in the process of losing hers – that I had to concentrate hard on not getting all weepy in my wine.
Because I can’t call her up or go for a visit (she lived on Riverside drive in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit), I pulled out one of her handwritten, well-splattered recipes – for lemon pudding cake, one of her better-known creations but one I can’t recall eating in the past decade or two.
I wonder about each drip and crumb: what happened that day? Who was she cooking for? Was she using her hand-held beaters, looking out over the water? Wearing her crisply ironed, striped tennis dress with the alligator on the chest?
Pudding cake is nursery food; not in the sense that it’s best suited to invalids or toddlers, but in that it’s the sort of thing you want someone to make for you. Preferably a grandma. I admit my brain defaulted to second guessing her method; had it been from another source and had I not been baking it in an attempt to connect with her on some level, to stir up some nostalgia, I would have gone about it a different way. But it worked, of course, just the way she had written it. I melted the butter to make it easier to stir into the egg yolk-lemon juice-milk, and I grated the zest of an entire lemon, rather than measure out two teaspoons. The more lemon, I think, the better.
I’m not sure why lemon became a spring flavour – it’s bright and sunny, I suppose, but citrus is winter fruit, at its peak once all the berries and peaches are long gone.
I may just make this for Thanksgiving dessert, to extend the family presence at the table. Pumpkin pie is the requisite, I realize. I envy those who adore it; as a kid, I hated it – it was like spiced squash mush, a ripoff of a pie. Now I don’t dislike it, and actually enjoy a forkful so long as the ratio is 2:1 whipped cream to pie. But I don’t love it. And while there are myriad other pumpkin recipes that are seasonal, I can’t imagine a wedge of pumpkin cake after a turkey dinner, and having never been a fan of the pie I’m not so attached to pumpkin itself that I need to come up with a dessert vehicle for it. I’d choose lemon over pumpkin any day.
James Barber taught me to squeeze lemon juice through my fingers to catch all the pips.
You make this pudding-cake thusly: mix egg yolks, lemon zest and juice, melted butter and milk in a mixing bowl. Stir in a mixture of sugar, flour, baking powder and salt; beat the egg whites stiff with sugar and fold into the aforementioned batter. Spread into a casserole dish that if you’re trying to be authentic, you’ve greased with a square of waxed paper swiped through soft butter.
She calls for the dish to be set in a water bath to bake, but since I chose a fairly large square one to begin with and lent my roasting pan out somewhere, all I could find to set it in was a big round Le Creuset braiser. It worked fine.
It bakes up spongey, squishy and golden, with a layer of lemon pudding under the cake.
We ate this out of what I have left of her shallow china bowls and silver spoons – we sat around the table and if I’m to be honest here, mostly ate directly from the baking dish. An impromptu gathering, inspired by my Grandma.
Speaking of gatherings (segue way!) you may have noticed my friend Jan and I doing a series of Gathering posts this year – this is one of them – and we’re happy to announce that the concept is turning into a book to be released in the fall of 2014!
To quote Jan – What will essentially be a printed extension of this series, Gatherings is a collection of recipes, ideas and how-tos designed to inspire and encourage a return to simple home entertaining. The book is divided into 20 different occasions; each packed with menus, recipes, drink ideas, easy serving, décor and presentation possibilities… Our hope is that will appeal to those who are interested in socializing and hosting more casual home parties, but aren’t sure where to start. And it will benefit those who can’t cook, have a small space, don’t know how to mix drinks, or are easily intimidated by all of the organizing that a good party requires. Sounds fun, right? It’s scheduled to publish in the fall of 2014, and our manuscript is due in a little less than four months – yikes!
Couldn’t have said it better myself.