As a pastry chef, I’m always on the lookout for a great new dessert. So when I recently discovered pudding cakes, I couldn’t believe my luck. A pudding cake isn’t just one yummy treat; it’s two delicious desserts in one—tender cake on top and creamy custard on the bottom—but without the hassle of making two components.
Of course, just because pudding cakes are novel to me, it doesn’t mean they’re truly new. Like most great “new” desserts, pudding cakes are a rediscovered classic. Americans have been acquainted with these treats for at least 100 years: The Original Boston Cooking School Cookbook includes a recipe for lemon soufflé sponge. Cookbook author Richard Sax found “sponge puddings” dating from the 1880s. And James Beard called these desserts “cake puddings.”
How one batter separates into two distinct layers
If you’ve ever made a soufflé, you might think my pudding cake recipes look familiar. Traditional dessert soufflés are made by combining whipped egg whites with a thick base that’s usually precooked. By contrast, pudding cakes are made by stirring whipped egg whites into an extremely thin uncooked batter. So essentially, a pudding cake is a soufflé with too much liquid. The additional liquid allows the air bubbles from the whipped egg whites to move freely in the thin batter during baking. As these bubbles expand, they float to the top of the baking dish and create a spongy cake layer, while the starch and eggs cook slowly and set the batter. With the air bubbles moved to the top, the bottom layer thickens into rich custard.
And the great thing is, the cake does this all by itself, so you don’t have to worry about a thing. Even the whipped egg whites in this recipe are foolproof because they contain sugar, which stabilizes the foam so it’s nearly impossible to overbeat them. And baking the cakes in a water bath ensures that the tops won’t crack and the custard won’t curdle.
Unlike soufflés, pudding cakes don’t puff dramatically in the heat of the oven, so you can fill your ramekins almost to the rim with batter. It will rise only slightly during baking and sink back down as the dessert cools.
A pudding cake needs time to chill
Although you can make pudding cakes in large ramekins and serve them family style, I prefer individual servings. Serving a small dish to each guest adds a special touch. And small portions also cook and cool faster, which is a good thing because although pudding cakes are good warm (about 30 minutes after they come out of the oven), they’re even better cold. I highly recommend delaying gratification and refrigerating your pudding cakes for a few hours or overnight. The flavors will intensify, the custard will thicken—and, most importantly, the cake and pudding layers will be more distinct.