jJudging by the comments when I posted a photo of my recipe-testing efforts for this column, it seems I’m one of the few people who didn’t grow up with some version of this dessert, which Arabella Boxer described as “a good hot pudding, quick and easy to make, and totally forgotten about.” Known as Lemon Surprise, Lemon Delight and even Lemon Magic Pudding, it’s a winter dessert of the sharp and luscious kind, rather than the comfortingly hard kind, with a “charming little surprise,” in the words of Margaret Costa, in the form of a sauce that appears like magic on the bottom of the dish after baking. . A proper dessert, with the royal seal of approval from Mary Berry, Delia Smith, and Nigel Slater, but without the Stodge.
In most recipes I try to use a mixture of butter and sugar, mixed with egg yolks, milk, lemon and a bit of flour to make a batter, then whipped with beaten egg whites, but there are some outliers. First, Regula Yswijn’s castle pudding from her first book Pride and Pudding, which, strictly speaking, is not self-seasoning pudding, but a steamed lemon sponge, and so delicious, that I couldn’t resist mentioning it to anyone after something little more than sticking ribs in This time of year.
Heston Blumenthal’s flourless example, based on a recipe from the kitchens of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, is a watery pudding that is, according to the Foods of England website, “a simple pudding similar to eggs and lemon frothed in water and baked, known from the news since the early 19th century “. However, eating it involved butter in somewhat greater amounts than the older examples, and somehow I ended up with a shivering, soft lemon pudding on a light jelly texture atop the butter sauce. It’s tasty, but not, I suspect, quite as intended.
With the exception of pastry chef Karen Dimasco’s New York Times recipe, which excludes butter and uses buttermilk instead of milk, all others differ only in the required ratio of eggs, butter, sugar, milk, and flour. The lightest pudding, in Boxer’s Book of English Food and attributed to Lady Arthur James (better known as Edwardian society hostess, racehorse breeder and alleged royal mistress Venetia Cavendish-Bentinck), requires only 15g of butter and two eggs, and the richest, from Chef Margot Henderson’s book ‘You are all invited’, 200g butter and eight eggs. The weekly Australian lemongrass delight that appears in so many happy childhood memories uses five times the amount of flour as the equally beloved Costa from the Four Seasons Cookery, and unsurprisingly, yields even more starchy results.
As is often the case, the best pudding for you depends on what you fancy. If you’re cooking for adults and hoping to impress, Henderson’s ridiculously tasty and rich recipe is one of the best; It’s like eating hot lemon curd straight from the jar, and they’re especially good with cold cream on top. If you’re looking for a little comfort food, Australian Women’s Weekly appeals to you. Conversely, if you want something a little more delicate, look for James or Dimasco products—the latter, with its tangy curd, is as frothy and enjoyable as a lemony sorbet. I decided it would sit somewhere in the middle – clean and light, but definitely still pudding – so I used a relatively modest amount of butter (melted, according to the Australian Weekly Woman’s Method, which makes it easier to incorporate), flour, and a medium number of eggs.
Ysewijn tops the steamed sponge with bits of lemon curd, as well as adding grated zest to the batter, but classic self-seasoning numbers are usually flavored with lemon juice, but my testers missed the bitter notes of zest in James pudding. Although diners should have no doubt that this is a lemony dessert, I avoided the very sweet and sour character of some of the recipes, because I don’t find them particularly comforting. However, if you enjoy slathering on sliced winter fruit, by all means increase your intake of juice and rind.
Similarly, you can add a second flavor. Henderson opts for vanilla extract, but ground cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, or even black pepper would be happy pairings, and amazingly enough, you can even infuse the milk with the likes of basil or thyme.
Many of the recipes call for individual tarts, but this is a dessert that I think looks even more flattering, not to mention generous, when served out of a large bowl, Henderson recommends. Be sure to spread them well to make serving easier, and cook them in a can of water until the base stays loose and custard-y even when the top has risen and dries into an airy, almost soufflé-like crown—don’t worry about a bit of cracking that’s to be expected.
While this pudding is best dug into the oven hot, it’s surprisingly good cold too, if you want to go a step further. A carafe of cream, though recommended by all of our testers, is entirely optional, and you might want to add fresh berries on the side (raspberries for Mrs. Arthur James, blueberries for DeMasco), though, since a few are in Season, canned fruit may be the best. However, personally, I like it better straight from the plate.
The perfect self-seasoning lemon pudding
to equip 15 minutes
cook 30 minutes
25 grams of butterPlus more lubrication
100 grams of soft sugar
40 grams of flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
a pinch of salt
260 ml of milk
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
Melt the butter in a saucepan, then set aside to cool slightly. Meanwhile, grease a medium ovenproof dish (the one I used measured 21cm x 15cm) with butter and take out a roasting pan large enough for it to rest on. Preheat the oven to 180°C (Fan 160°C) / 350°F / Gas 4 and bring to a full boil.
Stir the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Mix the egg yolks with the butter mixture, and put the whites in another large bowl.
Stir the flour, baking powder, and salt into the butter mixture, followed by the milk little by little, and mix until the mixture is smooth. Finely grate the lemon zest and then add the juice (you should have about 75ml).
Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form, then add a spoonful of batter into the mixture. Carefully incorporate the rest of the egg whites, so as to retain as much air as possible in it.
Pour the mixture into the butter dish (it should fill it almost to the brim), then place the dish in the roasting pan.
Pour in enough boiling water to fill the tin two-thirds, then carefully transfer to the oven and bake for 30 minutes, until the pudding is golden and set on the surface, but is still noticeably jiggly beneath the surface. Serve hot or cold.
Lemon Pudding, Surprise or Delight: If you have fond memories of this dish, what would you call it, and who was responsible? Are there other flavors of self-seasoning pudding?