Fannie Merritt Farmer was born in Massachusetts on March 23, 1857, the oldest of four daughters. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Farmer’s family placed a premium on education and it was expected that she would go to college, rather than marry right after school. Unfortunately, at age 16, Farmer suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to walk. She would eventually regain the use of her legs, but would never have full function again. Instead of going to college, Farmer was looked after by her parents, and spent the time learning to cook.
At age 30, she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School, and spent the next 9 years excelling in the study of “domestic science,” as it was known. After graduating, she took a job as an assistant to the director, and in 1891 she became principal of the School.
What do we owe to this turn-of-the-century domestic scientist? Modern baking in the United States. Prior to Farmer’s work, baking instructions were conversational and inconsistent (when you see old recipes, you might notice that no baking temperatures are given, or “as much as you like” accompanies an important ingredient), but she developed the “level measurement” system that we all take for granted today. Critics said she was taking the art and creativity out of baking. However, standard measurements allowed for adjustments in standard, measured ways, and also allowed for recipes to be transmitted to the next generation, without anything being lost in translation. Recipes improve, multiply, flourish, all because bakers are now able speak the same language–thanks to Fannie Farmer, the so-called “Mother of Level Measurements.”
In 1896, Farmer published a cookbook, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, full of recipes that used her level measuring system. Little was expected to come of the book, and at first only 3,000 copies were printed. Instead it became hugely popular, and extremely influential, so much so that it is still in print today, under a new, more accurate name: the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Years later, the book was updated by another amazing woman food writer, Marion Cunningham, who, in 1979, was hired to revise the Fannie Farmer Cookbook for contemporary audiences.
Initially, my only goal was to bake a dessert from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book to celebrate her 160th birthday. But skimming through the recipes I found online from the first edition were leaving me less than inspired. There were plenty of cakes, pies, desserts, and puddings. I love all those things, don’t get me wrong, but nothing was jumping off the page.
That’s when I stumbled onto a recipe for Lemon Pudding Cake, a Marion Cunningham recipe from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I have been so into pudding lately, of all sorts. I was not really a fan of snack packs as a child, but I did love the warm chocolate pudding that my mom made me as a child (I wrote about that here). Last fall, I wrote about a cornmeal-based “Indian pudding.” And just earlier this month, I made my friend Sarah’s grandmother’s bread pudding. Definitely a theme. I had lots of grapefruit on hand, but only a few lemons, so that’s what I used. You could also make this recipe with the traditional lemon. The recipe is exactly the same, just do not add salt and sub in 1/3 cup lemon juice for the the grapefruit and lemon juices in the recipe below.
Grapefruit Pudding Cake
Slightly adapted from Lemon Pudding in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham, 13th Edition
Grapefruit Pudding Cake Ingredients:
2 tbsp butter, softened
3/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup grapefruit juice
1 tbsp grapefruit zest
1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt
Grapefruit Pudding Cake Instructions:
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Add butter to a large dish. Beat for 30 seconds with a hand mixture until smooth. Gradually add all but 1 tbsp of sugar, mixing between each addition, until everything is incorporated and very smooth.
Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating between each egg yolk addition until fully incorporated.
Add in the milk, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, zest, flour. Beat just until everything looks well incorporated and uniform. The mixture will be foamy.
In a separate bowl, use a hand beater to beat the egg whites until they turn just white and begin to combine. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tbsp sugar. Continue beating for a few seconds until soft peaks form. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to gently fold the mixture into the egg yolk batter. Continue to fold until the the mixture is uniform, then stop immediately. Your batter will look lumpy and foamy.
In at least a 2-inch deep baking pan, place your empty 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Pour hot water into the baking pan, around, but not into, the baking dish. Pour enough water so that it fills about halfway up the side of the baking dish.
Pour your cake batter into the baking dish and slide into the oven.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, being sure to not let it get too brown. It should be light and golden. Keep an eye on it, but try not to open the oven door often.
This dish can be served after it has just cooled, or it can be served chilled.
What you have when you remove it from the oven is a sponge cake floating over a delicious grapefruit custard. This might very well be my dream dessert. In one dish! It’s magic. I can’t wait to try it with another fruit juice, or chocolate. It’s a fantastic recipe to celebrate an amazing lady. Happy birthday, Fannie!