Penelope Nejad’s Banana Meringue Pie

Emily Nejad

Emily Nejad and I met last spring when we sat next to each other at a Forth Chicago event for female entrepreneurs. When I sat down and realized who she was, I immediately began fangirling. I had never had one of her cakes, but I had already been following her on Instagram for months, regularly admiring her colorful, textural masterpieces. I asked if she would be interested in sharing a family recipe with me, and I’m so pleased that she said yes!

If you live in Chicago or the surrounding areas, you may already know Emily as the powerhouse behind Bon Vivant Cakes. Emily grew up in southern Indiana, attended Ball State for musical theater, and moved to Chicago. A musician before she was a baker, she and a friend started a band called Celine Neon, whose bright and theatrical videos and energetic electro-pop sound could easily be considered the sonic version of one of Emily’s cakes.

Even though her cakes might seem the product of years of baking experience, the Bon Vivant story is only about two years old. “I was baking for friends and it occurred to me that there might be a market for the cakes I was making. I put up a website and started an Instagram account and went from there,” she says. She was still waiting tables at the time, but after making a cake for a baby shower for a well-known Chicago blogger, her business blew up.

Elegant, whimsical, and each totally unique, Emily tries to ensure that her cakes represent the person ordering them. When you order a cake on her website, she wants to know everything about you. She describes her method on her site: “I want to know your hobbies, your passions, and your favorite band so that I can blast it in my kitchen while I’m baking your cake.”

Emily insists that she does not come from a long line of amazing cooks. “My maternal grandmother is not known for her culinary skills,” she says. “She used to make something called ketchup salad. Holy cow, it is BAD.” Emily’s mother, Penelope, however, has been cooking since she was young. “My mom was the sixth of nine kids. By the time she was a teenager, she was making meals for her whole family.” During college, Penelope met her future husband, an Iranian engineering student with, as Emily describes it, “a gregarious personality and a purple velvet disco suit.” They were married and the couple settled into their roles of bread-winning dad and stay-at-home mom. But in 2009, when the family hit some financial hardships, Penelope decided to go back to work. With her experience cooking for her family and baking during college, she decided to open a restaurant. Emily emphasizes that her mother decided to this “with no experience, in a bad economy, in a one hundred-year-old building, in southern Indiana.” Needless to say, things could have gone badly. “There are many reasons that this was risky, but she did it anyway, because her kids needed health insurance and a college education. So she went to work.” Things have grown quickly for her mother, just as they have for Emily. “Today she owns 3 restaurants, has around 50 employees, and works harder than anyone I know,” says Emily proudly.

Penelope Nejad

The recipe that Emily wanted to share is not a long-held family recipe. Instead, it’s her mom’s banana meringue pie that her mother used to make for holidays and Emily’s birthday. It originated from a recipe in a Presbyterian cookbook from Knox, Pennsylvania, that her mom has tweaked over the years. “Banana cream pie is my favorite pie, hands down,” Emily says. “My favorite time to eat it is at breakfast. There is nothing better than waking up and knowing that there is leftover pie from the night before.”

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Penny’s Banana Meringue Pie

Filling Ingredients:
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups
whole milk
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
2 tbsp butter, room temp
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp vanilla
2-3 bananas

Meringue Ingredients:
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
6 tbsp sugar
1/4
tsp vanilla

Pie Instructions:

Make 1 pie crust of your choice and set aside. (Emily says she prefers an all-butter pie crust. I prefer, and almost always use, this recipe.)

Mix sugar, cornstarch and salt in ½ quart saucepan, making sure that the sugar and cornstarch are mixed thoroughly so that they don’t clump once heat and liquid is added. Add milk.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir one minute.

To make your pudding, you’ll temper the hot mixture into the egg yolks: stir half of the hot mixture gradually into the egg yolks, being very careful not to scramble the eggs. When the yolks are warmed, add the hot mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot mixture. Boil and stir one minute.

Remove the pan from heat and stir in butter & vanilla.

Right before you add the hot pudding to the pie shell, add the sliced bananas to the bottom of the pie crust.

Pour pudding into pie shell to set; press plastic wrap over filling.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours but no longer than 48.

After the pudding has set, add the meringue to the pie. Make whatever swirly pattern you’d like with the fluffy meringue. Bake at 375 for no longer than 5 minutes on the bottom third of the oven, checking constantly. It can burn really easily. It’s done when the peaks of meringue start to brown.

Meringue Instructions:

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar, add the sugar 1 tbsp at a time until very stiff and glossy, and then stir in the vanilla. You must use very clean stainless bowl and stainless whisk.

Banana Meringue Pie

Seeing as how Emily and her mom both started their own businesses around food, I wondered if her mom had influenced Emily as an entrepreneur. She says, “My mom and I started growing as entrepreneurs at relatively the same time. There were a lot of parallels in our lives. The advice we pass back and forth to each other is, ‘Trust yourself. Trust your vision. You have something special.'”

If you want to keep up with Emily, follow her on Instagram @BonVivantCakes, where she showcases her cakes, and new creations, like cookie dough chocolate pops (WHAT?!), which you can sample this Saturday, September 23, at Chicago’s West Elm on North Avenue. AND she will be creating edible art for the MCA’s 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct 21st!

Emily, thank you so much for sharing your story, your mother’s story, and this delicious recipe with me! I’m so excited to see what’s next for you!

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Sister Lindsay’s Southern Banana Pudding

Kaye Rodney Winks-1

My favorite posts on this blog are when I get to invite my friends to share a family recipe and talk about what it means to them. For today’s post, I’m extremely happy to be joined by my friend, Kaye Winks.

Kaye is an actress who has been acting professionally for 13 years and writing professionally for seven. But naturally she’s been an actor and a writer her whole life.  Kaye isn’t an only child, but her siblings are several years older than her, which meant she grew up as the only child in her house. She spent her childhood creating picture books, putting on sock puppet shows for her first grade classroom, and memorizing her favorite movies and performing full-length re-enactments in her bedroom, complete with full makeshift sets and costumes. By the time she was 11, she realized that, if she wrote down the stories she created while she was playing pretend, what she was really doing was writing a script. And, from all the movies she watched, she knew that acting was something she could do for a living. She decided then to make that her goal.

In 2012, Kaye started working on a script that would eventually become her one-woman comedy show, Token. Kaye describes Token as a “comic and ironic look at what it’s like being the token black person,” and often the lone black person, in a world of white. But the goal of the show is not to pick on white people. Kaye points out that the show also “explores the funny and sometimes sobering experiences of being a suburban black girl with inner city black folk.”

In the show, Kaye performs many characters, but the most memorable and touching character she portrays is Sister Lindsay, who appears throughout the show to both scold bad behavior, and to offer advice on how to navigate the world. Kaye included Sister Lindsay in her show to “soften the blow of my character’s satirical voice and act as a voice of reason and morality that the audience would like.”

But Sister Lindsay was not the creation of Kaye’s imagination. She was Kaye’s grandmother. Born in Mississippi in 1935, Sister Lindsay fled the harsh Jim Crow laws in the South to Chicago in 1957. Sister Lindsay had never seen her birth certificate, so she always celebrated her birthday on October 28th. Many years later, Kaye’s aunt did some research in Sister Lindsay’s home town and found that, actually, she had been born on December 28th and was very pleased to find out that she was actually 2 months younger than she had always thought!

Sister Lindsay passed away one year ago yesterday and Kaye told me that her “homegoing” was like a celebrity’s. “We don’t call them ‘funerals’ in my family. The term ‘funeral’ is reserved for people who are ‘unsaved’ making it a sorrowful event of mourning for the lost soul. In my family, we call them ‘homegoing celebrations’ because our loved one’s souls are going home to heaven to be with their Creator and it is a chaste and wonderful party. The enormous old church was standing room only with at least 500 people in attendance and they joyfully danced and sang her spirit to heaven. My husband, not remotely accustomed to this custom, was pleasantly surprised at how fun it was, albeit bittersweet. It was also the first time he’d ever been the only white person in a room FULL of all black folks!”

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Sister Lindsay, at her birthday party, a few years ago.

What Kaye remembers very sharply are some of her grandma’s features. Her soft cheeks–“She had the absolute softest skin of any human I have ever encountered. I loved kissing Grandma on her cheeks because they were like little chocolate silk pillows that always smelled like baby powder.” Her laugh–“She had a ragged cackle, instead of a laugh, that was reminiscent of James Brown, being merely a ‘HA!’ or literal ‘Huh-HAAA!’ If you got the ‘Huh-HAAA!’ you knew you had said something really funny.” Her faith–“She was an extremely devout Christian woman, whose entire social life revolved around worshiping Jesus and helping her church family. Jesus was everything to her. She would also often get the police called on her for disturbing the peace because she’d sing ‘Oh Jesus’ or fervently pray at the top of her lungs at all hours of the night.” And, finally, her banana pudding. Kaye told me that it was a treat that she would rarely make, even though everyone loved it. “She’d just make it randomly and nonchalantly be like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s banana pudding in there,’ and everyone would scurry to the kitchen like a winning lottery ticket was in there. Like, why didn’t you tell us earlier, lady?!”

Kaye said that people in her family have tried to make the pudding, following the same recipe, but it just doesn’t taste the same as when her grandma made it. I made this recipe and, I kid you not, it’s one of the best desserts I’ve ever made.  I had it for breakfast and for dessert after dinner no less than three nights in a row. Maybe you can have a little more restraint than I did. If this pudding had that kind of effect on me and it was only me making it, what Sister Lindsay made must have been magical.

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Sister Lindsay’s Southern Banana Pudding

Ingredients:
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 1/4 cups Carnation evaporated milk
4 large eggs, separated
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/3 cups vanilla wafers
4 very ripe bananas

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Whisk together salt, sugar, and cornstarch in a heavy saucepan. Then whisk in the  evaporated milk. Add the egg yolks and mix thoroughly.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly for about 7-8 minutes or until thick. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and butter.

Slice the bananas, not too thin.

Layer half of the vanilla wafers in a medium-sized round glass baking dish. Top with half of the banana slices and half the pudding. Repeat the same with the wafers, bananas, and pudding that’s left. Finally, cover most of the top layer of pudding with vanilla wafers.

Bake at 375 degrees for 7-10 minutes.

Serve warm or chilled. Kaye suggests chilling for at least an hour, as that’s the way her grandma would serve it.

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Kaye first performed her show to a sold-out audience at Collaboraction Theater in Wicker Park in March 2017. Luckily for you, if you’re interested in seeing it (and Sister Lindsay), Kaye will be performing again, beginning this week. Token runs Fridays at 7:30pm, May 19 through June 9 in Judy’s Beat Lounge at The Second City Training Center. Tickets are available at: www.secondcity.com/shows/chicago/token/. (As of yesterday, the May 19th show was already sold out, so get your tickets early!)

I went to see the show’s debut in March and it was so good. There were definitely some gasps from the audience throughout, but there was mostly laughter, a lot of laughter. And while Kaye admits that there is “plenty of rather un-PC humor in it,” she says that it is also “really fun, honest, and relatable because it picks on everyone equally. I wrote it to share the perspective from the middle of two polarized spheres, the gray area between black and white, and hopefully inspire new thoughts and conversations about race and class by bringing people together to laugh at the absurdity of it all.”

And, if you’re interested in following Kaye in the future, her show will premier in New York City on Saturday, September 16th, at 9pm, at The Studio Theatre on 42nd Street (Theatre Row) as part of United Solo Theatre Festival. Tickets available here: http://unitedsolo.org/us/token-2017/. And if that’s not enough for you, she also has a book, The Civilized Citizen’s Guide to Dining Out, a snide guide on restaurant etiquette, that’s being released in fall 2017.

Kaye, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your show and share this amazing recipe from your grandmother!

Margaret Atwood’s Baked Lemon Custard

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Months ago, when I heard that The Handmaid’s Tale was going to be made into a TV series, I got very excited. If you don’t know about this book, which was written in 1985, here is an extremely brief summary. The novel takes place in the near-future (which, considering the year it was written, would have put it around the early 2000s). The U.S. government has been overthrown and is now a dictatorship. Under the new government, women’s rights are almost immediately and completely destroyed. The story is narrated by its main character, Offred, a woman who is part of a class of women whose sole purpose in the new society is to reproduce for the sterile wives of the ruling class. If you’re my age, you may remember this novel from your teen or college years, when you first heard about it, read it, and were stunned and terrified by it for years afterward. It probably also made you very, very angry.

Well, get ready to get angry again. Today is the day. The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are up on Hulu, and tonight I plan on settling deep into my couch tonight and watching them all. I know I’m not the only one excited about this. The reviews have been amazing and it doesn’t hurt that it stars Elisabeth Moss (Peggy!), Samira Wiley (Poussey, we’ve missed you!), and Alexis Bledel (Rory Gilmore, I’m saying this as a friend: You just need to get yourself together, girl).

You may notice that, on this blog, there is little rhyme or reason to the recipes that I make. My only real requirement is that they have a story to tell. Or, at least, they represent someone with a story to tell. In this case, the recipe I’m sharing comes from the author of the book herself, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. I’m always on the fence when I write this kind of post. I never want to diminish a woman’s accomplishments by focusing only on how great she is in the kitchen. It should certainly not be understated that Atwood is a prolific writer. She has won numerous awards, written many books, and has over 20 honorary degrees from universities around the world. (Did you know that she also wrote the lyrics to a rock song??)

So why then am I writing about one of her recipes? Well, in addition to her other written works, two years after Tale was published, Atwood published Canlit Foodbook, a cookbook based on literary food. Therefore, I feel that Atwood’s work in book-based food is worth exploring, since she thought it worthwhile. I did a search and found a Baked Lemon Custard recipe credited to Atwood on Epicurious. Though I can’t confirm if this particular recipe came from the Foodbook, I can confirm that this custard is…terrific. It’s light, it’s tart, and it’s the perfect combination of cake on top, pudding underneath.

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Margaret Atwood’s Baked Lemon Custard
A very slight variation on this recipe. Recipe below is altered to make four servings.

Ingredients:
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp butter, room temperature, plus more for buttering ramekins
2 tsp lemon zest
2 large eggs, separated
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2/3 cup buttermilk
3 tbsp lemon juice
Powdered sugar, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter the inside of four 3/4-cup ramekins and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the sugar, butter, and lemon zest. The mixture will not be completely smooth.

Beat in one egg yolk at a time until completely combined.

Mix in flour and buttermilk by alternating each. The flour should be added in three portions, the buttermilk should be added in two. Mix in the lemon juice.

In a separate, medium bowl, beat together the egg whites. Make sure your beaters are very clean and dry. The egg whites should begin to form peaks and should still be quite shiny. Carefully fold the egg whites into yolk mixture. When ready, the mixture will be consistently colored, but will still be lumpy.

Divide batter among the buttered ramekins. Place ramekins in at least a 2-inch deep pan. Add hot water to the pan, around the ramekins, to halfway up the side of each.

Bake for about 35 minutes, until cakes begin to set and just begin to brown on the top.

Remove ramekins from water bath to a wire rack to cool.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if you desire.

Serve warm or chilled.

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Can we all spare just a slight amount of appreciation for this delicious custard recipe? As I said before, I fully acknowledge how impressive Margaret Atwood is because of her literary talents, but I really admire that Margaret Atwood is a kick-ass writer, who just happens to make a kick-ass baked custard.

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Grapefruit Pudding Cake for Fannie Farmer’s Birthday

Fannie Farmer
(Source)

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.

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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.

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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!

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Pumpkin Indian Pudding

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November 13th was Indian pudding day. Who is coming up with these days, really? Honestly, I had no idea what hasty pudding or Indian pudding were three weeks ago. New Englanders are probably more familiar with this dish than the rest of the country. Being from the Midwest, I had never seen a recipe of this dish, let alone tasted it. I studied up, though, and here’s what I learned. Hasty pudding was first brought to America by the English colonists. The original version was probably more like a “porridge,” made with flour and water, rather than cornmeal and milk. It was likely sparingly sweetened, if at all.

When the colonists arrived in North America, the dish transformed into what became known as Indian pudding or Indian mush, thanks to the substitution of New World ingredients. After the American Indians showed the colonists how to cultivate corn, cornmeal was more plentiful in the colonies than the traditional flour. Because of this “hasty pudding” became “Indian pudding.” And, because of the abundance of milk, it was used instead of water, which thickened the dish to something more like pudding or custard and less like, well, gruel.

As I was looking at several different recipes, I noticed that this dish was often referred to as “porridge” or “mush.” Not the most appetizing description. When I started looking at some of the ingredients, “eggs, milk, molasses, cinnamon,” etc., I thought, well, none of this sounds that bad. And I was right!

In honor of the colonists who changed their old recipe to work in their new land, I decided to put a spin on this traditional dish with another New World ingredient, pumpkin. (No, not pumpkin spice. Just pumpkin.)

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Pumpkin Indian Pudding
Serves 4-6

Pumpkin Indian Pudding Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/3 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup canned pumpkin
1 large egg
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Pumpkin Indian Pudding Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 1 quart baking dish. Set aside.

To a medium bowl, add the pumpkin, egg, brown sugar, molasses, vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger. Stir until smooth. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, salt, and milk. Try to get out any large clumps before turning on the heat. Turn on stove and continue to whisk for about 5-10 minutes, until the mixture just starts to boil. Turn off the stove and continue to whisk for about a minute. Add in the butter and continue to stir until it’s completely melted.

Add the cornmeal mixture to the pumpkin mixture in the bowl. To make sure the eggs don’t scramble, add a little of the hot mixture in and stir quickly to temper the eggs. Stir together until smooth.

Pour into your baking dish and then place the baking dish on a cookie sheet.

Cook at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Then, turn the oven down to 325 degrees and continue baking for 1 hour and 15 minutes. This dish does best without the oven door opening and closing. If you’re really itching to check on it, try to do so only once or twice.

Allow it to cool for about 10 minutes before serving. Even after that, it will still be quite hot. Once removed from the oven, the surface will look a bit dry and may even be cracking a little. That’s perfect. Once you scoop into it, you will notice that it’s actually not dry at all. Also, don’t be surprised if it deflates a little after you take it out of the oven.

I highly suggest adding some vanilla ice cream, or whipped cream, while it’s still warm.

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The amount of time you need for cooking this does not exactly make this hasty. The original flour-based dish was much hastier. With the addition of the cornmeal, a longer cooking time is needed for the cornmeal to absorb more liquid, which results in a thicker, creamier texture.

The addition of pumpkin makes this the perfect dish for fall and early (*cringe*) winter. As Alex and I were eagerly scooping it into our mouths, we came up with this description: something between pumpkin pie, without the crust, and a gingerbread cookie. Sold yet?

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