Just Like Mother Used To Eat

Three martini lunch?

Three martini lunch?

Here at Butter Flour Eggs, my mother is Executive Vice President of Food Nostalgia. Full disclosure: before she could be lured out of retirement to take the job, I was forced to sign a contract approximately the thickness of the Manhattan phonebook that contained a waiver forbidding me from referring to her age in any way. (So read on, and you do the math.)

Mom reminded me recently of a happy food memory she has carried with her for many years. Before my parents got married she worked for one of the high mucky mucks at the State House in Boston. On the days when she felt she could slip away without any risk that the wheels of state government would grind to a halt in her absence, she’d pop over to Schrafft’s for lunch.

Schrafft’s was before my time, but a couple of years ago I read a fun little book called When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s by Joan Kanel Slomanson. More a reminiscence than a deep dive into the sociology behind the famous chain restaurant, I learned that in spite of Schrafft’s fame as a New York chain (they were almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks are now,) the company actually had deep New England roots. In fact, the Schrafft’s sign still hangs prominently on the Charlestown, Mass. landmark building that once served as the company’s candy factory.

My mom uses the same reverent tones when mentioning Schrafft’s Cottage Pudding that she uses when talking about some of the far-flung trips she and my Dad took.

I had no idea what Cottage Pudding was, and assumed it must have been something amazing. I grilled my mom: was it like bread pudding? No. Was it like those molten chocolate cakes that I just read have been declared old hat? No. Well, what was it then?

As she explained it, Cottage Pudding was a piece of plain white loaf cake served on a plate with warm chocolate sauce.

A piece of plain cake with chocolate sauce inspires a lifetime of reverent memories in a woman who is intelligent, cultured, and well travelled? Go figure, right? But that’s food: you never know what will grab you. And who knows what kind of emotions are tied up in the food we eat. With the weight of running the Commonwealth of Massachusetts practically resting on my Mom’s shoulders, maybe Cottage Pudding was some kind of soothing comfort food. Food is a primal urge. We can’t explain it.

Actually, a nice piece of cake with some warm chocolate sauce doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

But why is it called “pudding?”

I started with a little detective work. Cottage Pudding seems to have been around for a long time before my mother found it. There is a recipe for Cottage Pudding in the early Fannie Farmer cookbooks. A lot of people remember the name Fannie (or Fanny) Farmer from the chain of candy shops that disappeared a few years back, but actually she was a prominent New England cook and teacher, and wrote one of the first cookbooks that used standard measures (i.e., cups and teaspoons) in the recipes. The recipe for Cottage Pudding in the 1918 edition of her The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (now available on line here) is clearly for a cake.

The umbrella word that the British use for most desserts is “pudding.” If you take this somewhat wider definition of the word “pudding” into consideration, and keep in mind that Farmer was a product of the late 19th century when there was still a British colonial influence on American food you’ll see that it isn’t much of a stretch for this dessert to be called “pudding.”

I hear you: you don’t want a history lesson, you want cake and you want it NOW! Fine: class dismissed. I’m off to the kitchen. The Schrafft’s chain is long gone but Cottage Pudding lives. I’m performing CPR on it.

I have two tasks at hand. The first is to create a modern version of a “homely” old dessert. The second is to try to provide my mom with a little reunion with a consoling old friend.

The Schrafft’s book I mentioned above was a good source for the Hot Fudge Sauce recipe. It is a basic cream, butter, sugar, chocolate sauce. True to its Schrafft’s roots, the sugary sauce is very “candy-shoppe” in its influence and easy to prepare. But the book doesn’t mention Cottage Pudding, so for the cake I first considered Fannie Farmer’s recipe. It is also very basic, and is likely very simple to make. But it also seems plain to the point of being austere. I think a better challenge would be to bring a little vitality to this party while still staying within the confines of Schrafft’s reputation for plain, home-style cooking.

So I went to my old fallback recipe: Ina Garten’s Lemon Yogurt Pound Cake, which I mentioned in this space a few weeks ago. With a few changes, and perhaps a bit of cosmetic surgery, this would give me a foundation on which to build, and a chance to bring Cottage Pudding into the 21st century.

I started by scrubbing all of the lemon out of the recipe (Lemon and chocolate never seem to go well together.) But I thought the cake needed some kind of quiet counterpoint to the sticky ooze of the chocolate sauce. Vanilla seemed like the obvious choice, but not just the perfume of vanilla extract: I thought adding vanilla bean would give the cake its own vibrant personality to stand up to its overbearing saucy sister.

But how much vanilla bean? The normal rule in cooking is to start with less, because you can always add more of something but you can’t remove it. But this seemed like one time when breaking that rule was appropriate. I wanted to see what too much vanilla would taste like, so I added the contents of a whole vanilla bean.  This gave the dough an intense vanilla scent and a picturesque speckle of the little black dots from the bean.

In a nod to the current obsession with cupcakes I thought it would be fun to leave the loaf pan on its shelf for now, and try baking the dough in a muffin tin. That would accomplish portion control, yes, but also awaken the primal childhood instinct of having your very own cake (and yes, eating it too.)

My first hint that I was on the right track was the heady vanilla cloud that enveloped me and my kitchen when I opened the oven door to remove the cakes. Don’t be afraid to serve this dessert warm from the oven! The combination of warm sauce and warm cake throwing off its breathy vanilla-ness is intense. The combination of warm sauce and cool cake is equally gratifying—when the warm sauce hits the cool cake you get a slightly less aggressive vanilla hit, more like a poke on the shoulder reminding you, “I’m here too!”

By the way, Fannie Farmer recommended that the cake be served with Vanilla or Hard Sauce. Somehow it ended up at Schrafft’s served with their famous chocolate sauce. I wonder if that was Schrafft’s twist or my Mom’s? She’s been known to ask for a dollop of hot fudge sauce on everything but french fries.

Either way, my first thought on my first bite was, “Ohhhh! Ice Cream Shop!” Eat this and you are taken back in time to the cool air of a marble-lined neighborhood confectionary. I get it now, Mom. You just earned your cushy corner office.

By the way: if you’re into fondue, bake the cake in a loaf pan, cut it into cubes and serve with the hot sauce. I know fondue normally has some alcohol added: might I recommend the merest tipple of Cointreau?

And Mom? Please get back to work. That reminds me: I asked Mom what she had for lunch besides the Cottage Pudding. The famous Schrafft’s Chicken Sandwich? No. Their celebrated Lobster Newburgh? No.

Just the Cottage Pudding. That’s my Mom.

Click here for the Cottage Pudding recipe.

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