Off to the Plymouth Antiquarian Society archives for a mid-nineteenth-century recipe. Somehow “Delmonico Pudding” radiated from America’s toniest, most exciting, restaurant into an anonymous Plymouth Antiquarian Society manuscript, where it shares a page a bit uncomfortably with some local stalwarts (“Snow Jelly” and “Molasses Cookies”).
Opening in the 1830s in Manhattan, Delmonico’s would revolutionize dining in this country over the following half-century, with a terrific trail-blazing menu (dishes a la carte!), glitzy clientele (robber barons! actresses!) and forward-thinking restaurant policies (no reservations! women cashiers!). There’s the famous Delmonico Steak and the elegant Delmonico Cocktail (a great addition to the bar chez Marcoux this winter) and so it is natural to assume that the Delmonico Pudding will be sensational and complicated; after all, one of the Delmonico brothers was trained as a pastry chef in their native Switzerland.
One read-through of the recipe, though, leaves the 21st-century cook bemused – it turns out to be a real bland, “plain vanilla” kind of bygone dessert – but wait! it doesn’t even have vanilla in it! It’s just cornstarch pudding with meringue on top! Sure, that sounds easy to make – but why bother?
It’s fortunate that it’s my job right now to make these things no matter how unpromising, because it turns out to be so much more interesting and delicious than the putative sum of its parts. For one thing, just the fact that it does not contain vanilla wakes up the palate to enjoy the intense dairy/eggy experience; it is also the loosest-textured, least sweet pastry cream imaginable, not the slightest bit cloying or heavy. Even the dreaded meringue isn’t very sweet – there’s just enough sugar to give it structure, and it provides a subtle contrast in mouthfeel (reminiscent of a low-maintenance oeufs à la neige). In it’s day, it WAS ground-breaking: in a world of steamed, boiled or baked puddings, the cornstarch binder, the fancy-seeming meringue (or “egg-top” in the words of one Plymouth recipe-writer), and the cold service, not to mention the big-city name-brand, made this thing the last word in dinner-party elegance.
“3 table spoonfuls Corn-starch dissolved in a little milk – boil 1 qt milk, 5 tablespoons of sugar. 5 eggs, beat the yolks with the sugar. Mix all together and boil with the milk until it thickens. Have ready the whites beaten to a thick froth with sugar and lemon and spread on the pudding. put it in the oven and bake until the whites are brown. Must stand until entirely cold. Colder the better.” –original recipe.
- 1 quart, plus ¼ cup whole milk
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 5 eggs, whites and yolks separated
- 9 tablespoons sugar, divided
- pinch salt
- ½ teaspoon lemon extract (some recipes give an almond option)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Start heating up 1 quart of the milk in a 2-quart saucepan over a medium low flame, stirring occasionally (you can use a double-boiler setup for this whole operation if you’re the nervous type – or you can just pay careful attention). In a small bowl, thoroughly stir the cornstarch into the ¼ cup of cold milk.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Whisk in 5 tablespoons of sugar and the pinch of salt. When the mixture is well-blended, whisk the cornstarch mixture in, too.
When the milk is heated to around 190 degrees (if you have no thermometer, this is when the surface is just beginning to steam), carefully pour about a third of the hot milk onto the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. When it is thoroughly mixed, scrape the mixture back into the saucepan, whisking, and return it to the heat. Continue whisking until the mixture thickens (190 degrees, again), but don’t let it really boil; this takes two minutes or so. Remove from the heat, and stir a bit longer (touch the bottom of the pan to cool water for a moment to really stop the cooking, if you want to be sure).
Pour the pudding into a large heat-proof dish, and make the meringue. Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl until the large uneven bubbles give way to an even foam. Keep beating while sprinkling on the remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar and keep at it a few more minutes, until white and glossy. Whip in the extract. Dollop by spoonfuls over the surface of the pudding, and smooth it with a knife. Pop it in the oven for around 15 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Cool to room temperature, then chill at least a few hours.
In a variation (from the 1880s Plymouth manuscript of Sarah Lincoln Tinkham Russell) called an “Orange Pudding”, the cook lines the dish with peeled juicy orange sections before laying in the pudding – highly recommended!