I moved to New York when I was 18. Not long after, I enrolled in culinary school on student loans. It was a disorienting choice at times, even though I kept telling myself that running a trade was “practical”. Most of my college friends and roommates were preparing for serious careers, and I was in a crumpled chef’s coat and forgot to dissolve the cake yeast in liquid before adding it to the kugelhof dough. Sometimes I can still hear the stern chef-instructor yelling at me in front of the class, “You’re bad at following directions!” Alarmingly, following instructions seemed to be a necessary part of the job.
My friends remember that time romantically: I showed up with a whole Charlotte Royale and a set of little fours that everyone would devour after an hour. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt isolated and insecure, trying to find my place in the kitchen classroom.
That only started to change the night my roommates decided to host a dinner party on our roof. As a culinary student in residence, I was tasked with dessert. This was my first time baking at home since starting school, and I knew I needed to keep my ambitions in check without a stand mixer or a lot of fridge space at my disposal. I thought about the dessert the sous chef would make for the staff meal at the restaurant where I worked in high school, the baked lemon pudding that magically broke apart in the oven to reveal a rich custard beneath the thin cake top. It was the kind of dessert that you baked in a large cake pan or pan and put on plates. Light and comforting, it was the definition of a dessert that is more than the sum of its parts. I decided to do this. But when I went to pick up lemons from my produce store, I found mangoes on sale, fragrant, overripe and in need of attention. And so my lemon custard cake became a mango custard cake.
Custard cake can be made in many ways, but essential to its charm is the combination of citrus juice and dairy products, a high ratio of wet to dry ingredients and whipped egg whites. To modify the cake to include mango, I reduced the amount of lemon juice so it wouldn’t overpower the fruit. Then I swapped out the typical milk for buttermilk and yogurt to add richness and boost acidity to replace the lemon. I considered adding spices or vanilla, but the mango was so delicious that 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 though fondant cakes are not my thing, I can still use the knowledge I have gained and apply it in my own way. It was important to follow the directions but also research where I was going. This cake became a star for me.
Mango Custard Cake Recipe
Serves 6 to 8
9 tablespoons (126 grams) of unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
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 pieces (1 ¼ cup)
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
½ cup (113 grams) plain yogurt or sour cream
2 tablespoons of 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 icing sugar to garnish
Step 1: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a little melted butter over the bottom and sides of a 10-inch casserole dish or saute pan (cast iron is not recommended for this recipe). Add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the pan and shake to coat the inside evenly. Discard excess sugar.
Step 2: In a medium bowl or pitcher, 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 sugar and the melted butter and beat vigorously until the mixture is visibly lighter and fluffy, about 1½ minutes. (Note: Never leave the sugar in direct contact with the egg yolks without stirring immediately, otherwise the yolks will “burn” and pieces of hard-boiled eggs will form.)
Step 4: Add the mashed mango mixture to the lightened egg mixture and beat until smooth.
Step 5: Sift the flour and salt onto the surface of the mixture in the bowl and beat for 20 seconds to combine completely. (Don’t skip the sifting, this recipe has a small ratio of dry to wet ingredients, which can cause it to clump if the flour isn’t sifted.)
Step 6: Place the egg whites in a large bowl and beat with a hand mixer until the mixture forms airy soft peaks when you stop the mixer and lift it from the bowl.
Step 7: Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter in 3 additions. The dough is ready when only a few small egg white curds remain unworked. It will look slightly bumpy; do not mix.
Step 8: Transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Place the sheet on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in the center of the oven, turning carefully after 30 minutes. Bake for 15 minutes, then check for doneness: The top of the cake should be puffy and golden brown, and the center should barely jiggle.
Step 9: Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and chill for at least an hour before serving. Decorate the cake with chopped mango, berries and icing sugar. Use a large spoon or wide, flat spatula to scoop onto serving plates or bowls.
The cake can be baked the day before and kept wrapped and refrigerated overnight. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.