I moved to New York when I was 18. Not long after that, I enrolled in culinary school on a student loan. It was a disorienting choice at times, even though I kept telling myself that pursuing a trade was “practical.” Most of my friends and roommates were in college preparing for serious careers, and I was in a wrinkled chef’s coat forgetting to dissolve cake yeast into liquid before adding it to kugelhof dough. Sometimes I can still hear the terse chef-instructor gibe at me in front of the class, “You are bad at following directions!” Alarmingly, following directions seemed like an essential part of the job.
Friends of mine remember that time romantically: I’d show up with a whole Charlotte Royale and suite of petit fours for everyone to devour after class. But what I remember is feeling isolated and unsure, struggling to find my place in the kitchen classroom.
That didn’t start to change until the night my roommates decided to host a dinner party on our rooftop. I, as the culinary student in residence, was tasked with dessert. It was my first time baking at home since starting school and I knew I needed to rein in my ambition without a stand mixer or much refrigerator space at my disposal. I thought about a dessert the sous chef would make for staff meal at the restaurant where I’d worked in high school, a baked lemon pudding that magically split in the oven to reveal a rich pudding beneath a thin top layer of cake. It was the kind of dessert you baked in a large cake pan or skillet and spooned onto plates. Both light and comforting, it was the definition of more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts dessert. This, I decided, was what I would make. But when I went to pick up lemons from my produce shop, I found mangoes on sale, fragrant, overripe, and demanding attention. And so my lemon pudding cake became a mango pudding cake.
There are many ways to make a pudding cake, but what’s essential to its magic is the combination of citrus juice and dairy, a high ratio of wet to dry ingredients, and whipped egg whites. To adapt the cake to include mango, I decreased the amount of lemon juice to keep it from overpowering the fruit. Then I swapped out the typical milk for buttermilk and yogurt, which added richness and a boost of acidity to replace the lemon. I considered adding a spice or vanilla, but the mango was so flavorful it wasn’t necessary.
This process of experimenting with a recipe that meant something to me, and then sharing it with friends helped me find my raison d’etre in the kitchen. I realized that even if fondant cakes weren’t my thing, I could still use the knowledge I was gaining and apply it in my own way. It was important to follow directions, but also to explore which one I was going in. For me, this cake became a lodestar.
Mango Pudding Cake Recipe
Serves 6 to 8
9 tablespoons (126 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (222 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1 large (12-ounce) extra-ripe mango, pitted and peeled, flesh cut into 1-inch chunks (1¼ cups)
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
½ cup (113 grams) plain whole yogurt or sour cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 eggs, separated, at room temperature
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon (68 grams) all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
Sliced mango, berries, and powdered sugar, for garnish
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush some of the melted butter along the bottom and sides of a 10-inch ovenproof skillet or saute pan (cast iron is not recommended for this recipe). Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar to the pan and shake it around to coat the interior evenly. Discard any excess sugar.
Step 2: In a medium bowl or jug, combine the mango, buttermilk, yogurt, and lemon juice and blend with an immersion blender until completely smooth. Set aside.
Step 3: Place the egg yolks in a large, wide bowl. Add the remaining 1 cup of sugar and melted butter and whisk vigorously until the mixture is visibly lighter and fluffy, about 1½ minutes. (Note: Never leave sugar in direct contact with egg yolks without mixing immediately or it will “burn” the yolks and result in bits of cooked egg.)
Step 4: Add the pureed mango mixture to the lightened egg mixture and whisk until smooth.
Step 5: Sift the flour and salt over the top of the mixture in the bowl and whisk for 20 seconds to combine completely. (Don’t skip the sifting; there is a small ratio of dry to wet ingredients in this recipe, which can make it prone to clumping if the flour isn’t sifted.)
Step 6: Place the egg whites in a large bowl and whip them with a handheld mixer until the mixture forms aerated soft peaks when the mixer is stopped and lifted from the bowl.
Step 7: Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter in 3 additions. The batter is finished when only a few small curds of egg white remain unincorporated. It will look slightly curdled; do not overmix.
Step 8: Transfer the batter to the prepared saute pan. Place the pan on a rimmed baking tray and bake in the center of the oven, rotating carefully after 30 minutes. Bake for 15 minutes and then check for doneness: The top of the cake should be puffed and golden brown and its center will barely jiggle.
Step 9: Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and cool for at least an hour before serving. Garnish the cake with sliced mango, berries, and powdered sugar. Use a large spoon or wide, flat spatula to scoop it onto plates or bowls for serving.
The cake can be baked a day in advance and held wrapped and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.