The pistachio Bundt cake at Claud has a secret.
It’s one that Joshua Pinsky, the chef, has been hesitant to share. After all, this dessert at his French-influenced restaurant in the East Village may be one of the best in New York City right now, with its plush crumb, candy bar-like flavor and mint-green hue.
But he’s finally ready to reveal the key ingredient. It’s not high-end vanilla paste or heirloom wheat flour. It’s instant pudding mix.
In trying to re-create a dessert from his childhood, Pinsky arrived at the same conclusion as countless other professional bakers. Instant pudding is more than just a century-old convenience food for busy home cooks. It’s how chefs make soft, spongy cakes that remind diners of their favorite childhood desserts.
“I don’t tell everybody,” Pinsky said. “When they are like, ‘This is delicious,’ I don’t go, ‘It’s the pudding.’ But it’s the pudding.”
He first developed the recipe in 2015 as the chef of the now-closed Korean- and Italian-inspired restaurant Momofuku Nishi. Initially, he followed a recipe from his mother, Kathy Pinsky: a combination of pistachio pudding mix and boxed vanilla cake. It was too sweet. Then, he made it entirely from scratch.
“It didn’t have the same, I hate to say it, artificialness to it,” he said.
Eventually, he replaced the cake mix with a simple chiffon cake batter and added salt, a lime glaze and whipped ricotta. But the boxed instant pudding remained.
He felt some embarrassment for his semi-homemade technique — so much so that he would hide the pudding boxes in the kitchen.
At Claud, which opened last summer, Pinsky is more confident in his approach: Give people the flavors they remember, but with more finesse.
“Having that touch of something synthetic, that’s what reminds you of every cake you ever had growing up,” he said.
Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding, which makes up nearly a third of the company’s sales. A century-old convenience food mix is the not-so-hidden secret at the heart of many tasty recipes. (Colin Clark/The New York Times)
It’s a strategy that sells. The banana pudding at Magnolia Bakery, which was founded in New York City in 1996 and has locations around the world, is little more than sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream, bananas, Nilla wafers and instant vanilla pudding mix. The dessert, which accounts for 30% of the company’s sales, has given rise to dozens of copycat versions and even comes in body wash form.
When Bobbie Lloyd took over as CEO of Magnolia Bakery in 2006, she sought out new ingredient sources for some recipes. There was room for improvement, she thought, with one exception. “The banana pudding is the one recipe I did not touch,” she said.
“There is something about the flavor of banana pudding with Jell-O instant vanilla pudding that you can’t replicate with a homemade pastry cream.”
First introduced by a brand called My-T-Fine in 1918, instant pudding mix — whose key ingredients are sugar and cornstarch — was a product of the post-World War I manufacturing boom, according to the 2012 book, “Pudding: A Global History” by Jeri Quinzio. The rise of supermarkets in the U.S. and the growing number of women entering the workforce drove the product’s popularity as a shortcut dessert. A 1941 advertisement for Jell-O instant pudding mix — which debuted in the 1930s — in Ladies’ Home Journal claimed it could re-create “Grandma’s creamy, deep-flavored pudding, quick as a scat.”
Home cooks helped popularize using the mixes in desserts other than pudding, like cakes and trifles, said Goldstein, the food historian. Community cookbooks from the 1960s to the 1990s contain recipes for lemon cake, cheesecake and blitz torte, all made with instant pudding. Some cooks swear by pudding for softer, chewier chocolate chip cookies.
These days, instant pudding mix is not flying off store shelves. Sales of gelatin and pudding mixes declined by 5.9% in December 2022 compared with the year prior, according to IRI, a market research firm. Baking cookbooks extolling the values of convenience foods aren’t as common anymore, said Darra Goldstein, a food historian and cookbook author.
“I feel like the ethos is more from-scratch baking and trying to go back to pure flavors,” she said.
But people more often crave familiar flavors, not pure ones, and instant pudding helped shape American palates, said Stella Parks, the author of “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.” “What is the flavor of butterscotch?” she said. “Butterscotch pudding is going to hit that on the nose for people. It would be their first and only exposure to a flavor like that.”
Ingredients like pistachio are more accessible in pudding form, she added.
When added to a baked good, pudding mix can also improve the texture. The sugar helps desserts retain moisture, while the cornstarch makes for a taller rise in the oven, Parks said.
Food writer Esteban Castillo realized this when he tried to develop a recipe for Key lime Bundt cake similar to the one sold by the bakery chain Nothing Bundt Cakes for his second cookbook, “Chicano Bakes.”
“I tried doing so many things, like incorporating a bunch of lemon zest and lime juice,” he said. The flavor wasn’t quite right, and the texture wasn’t as bouncy or tender as he wanted. The solution? Instant lemon pudding mix. “It just keeps it really nice and moist without having to use a soak.” (Nothing Bundt Cakes does not include instant pudding mix in its confections.)
April Anderson, a founder of Good Cakes and Bakes in Detroit, has incorporated pudding mix into a variety of the bakery’s offerings, like cheesecake, banana pudding and her bestselling rum cake — a recipe inspired by her mother’s version, which always included instant vanilla pudding.
“Whenever someone wants something that is light and fluffy, I always use a Jell-O mix,” she said.
But she’s not hiding the boxes. She tells customers, proudly, that the mix is key to some of her cakes.
Instant pudding is an American staple, she said. Why would she keep it a secret?
Pistachio Bundt Cake
Joshua Pinksy, the chef at the restaurant Claud, sprinkles whipped ricotta on his pistachio Bundt cake, which relies on a boxed pudding mix for its familiar flavor and airy texture. A century-old convenience food mix is the not-so-hidden secret at the heart of many tasty recipes. (Colin Clark/The New York Times)
Recipe from Joshua Pinsky
Adapted by Priya Krishna and Jesse Szewczyk
If you’ve never been a fan of Bundt cake, this one just might change your mind. The key to this cake’s moist crumb and sweet, nostalgic flavor is instant pistachio pudding mix, a trick that chef Joshua Pinsky learned from his mother. A simple lime glaze and whipped ricotta for dolloping make this recipe feel more special than your average snacking cake. This also works well as a make-ahead dessert, retaining its moisture and flavor over a few days. Try making the whipped ricotta a day ahead: It’ll thicken and become even creamier overnight.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, plus cooling and setting
INGREDIENTS FOR CAKE
Nonstick cooking spray or neutral oil
2 3/4 cups / 351 grams all-purpose flour
1 (3.4-ounce) package instant pistachio pudding mix
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon / 195 milliliters whole milk
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons / 205 grams full-fat plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
9 large egg whites
1 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons / 528 grams granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups / 300 milliliters canola oil
2/3 cup / 85 grams shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
Ingredients for the Whipped Ricotta (see tip):
1 1/3 cup / 328 grams whole-milk ricotta
1/4 cup / 60 milliliters heavy whipping cream
2/3 cup / 68 grams sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
2 teaspoons olive oil
Pinch of kosher salt
INGREDIENTS FOR THE GLAZE
2 1/4 cups / 230 grams sifted powdered sugar, plus more as needed
1/4 cup / 60 milliliters fresh lime juice (from about 2 medium limes), plus more as needed
1/2 cup / 64 grams unsalted roasted shelled pistachios, sliced or coarsely chopped
Flaky sea salt, for garnish
1. Prepare the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees and coat a 12-cup (or larger) Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, pistachio pudding mix and baking powder. In a second medium bowl, whisk together the milk, yogurt and vanilla bean paste until smooth.
3. Combine the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or in a large mixing bowl if using a hand mixer). Beat on medium speed until frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sugar, increase the mixer speed to high, and beat until the egg whites are marshmallowy with firm peaks that form when the beater is lifted, 4 to 5 minutes.
4. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer, add the flour mixture and canola oil, and gently mix them into the egg whites using a rubber spatula until smooth and no pockets of unincorporated flour remain. Gently mix in the milk mixture until completely smooth, and then stir in the pistachios until evenly distributed throughout the batter.
5. Pour the batter evenly into the prepared Bundt pan, smooth into an even layer and tap the pan on the counter several times to remove any large air pockets. Bake until the top of the cake is lightly browned and a skewer or cake tester inserted into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 60 to 75 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then flip the cake out onto a wire rack and let cool completely before glazing.
6. While the cake is cooling, make the whipped ricotta: Transfer the ricotta to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment and add the heavy cream, powdered sugar, vanilla paste, olive oil and salt. Process until the mixture is completely smooth, stopping and scraping down the sides of the food processor as needed, 40 to 60 seconds total. (Alternatively, set a fine mesh strainer over a large mixing bowl and add the ricotta to the strainer. Use a rubber spatula to press the ricotta through the strainer into the bowl. Add the heavy cream, powdered sugar, vanilla paste, olive oil and salt to the bowl of ricotta and vigorously whisk until smooth.) Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes about 1 2/3 cups.
7. Once the cake is completely cooled, make the glaze: In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and lime juice until the sugar is completely dissolved. The glaze should be very thick yet pourable. If the glaze is too thin, whisk in additional powdered sugar 1 tablespoon at a time. If it’s too thick, whisk in additional lime juice 1 teaspoon at a time. Transfer the glaze into a piping big or large zip-top bag with the corner cut off and drizzle the glaze over the top of the cooled cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Immediately garnish the top with the sliced pistachios and sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Let stand until the glaze has set, about 20 minutes, and serve with the whipped ricotta.
Tips: Whipped ricotta can be made up to a week in advance and stored in the fridge tightly covered with plastic wrap.
Magnolia Bakery’s Banana Pudding
Recipe from Magnolia Bakery
Adapted by Priya Krishna
To many, the banana pudding at the famed New York shop Magnolia Bakery is even more iconic than the store’s beloved cupcakes. Airy, creamy and delightfully reminiscent of childhood packaged snacks (thanks to instant vanilla pudding mix), this dessert is both a crowd-pleaser and easy to assemble. If you’re making 12 individual servings rather than one large one, you’ll have enough cookies to use two per layer. If you prefer more coverage, make only two layers and use three cookies per layer.
Yield: 12 to 16 servings
Total time: 30 minutes, plus at least 5 hours’ chilling
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 cups ice-cold water
1 (3.4-ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix
3 cups cold heavy cream
1 (11-ounce) box vanilla wafer cookies (such as Nilla)
4 to 5 ripe bananas, sliced
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the condensed milk and water on low speed until blended, then increase the speed to medium and whisk until well combined, about 1 minute. Add the instant pudding mix and beat until there are no lumps and the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl, cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or overnight.
2. Using the stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream on medium speed for about 1 minute, until the cream starts to thicken, then increase the speed to medium-high and whip until stiff peaks form. Be careful not to overwhip.
3. With the mixer running on low speed, add the pudding mixture a spoonful at a time. Mix until well blended and no streaks of pudding remain.
4. To assemble, set aside 4 to 5 cookies, whole or crumbled, for garnish. In a 4- to 5-quart trifle bowl or a wide glass bowl (or in 12 8-ounce bowls or ramekins), spread one-quarter of the pudding over the bottom and layer with one-third of the cookies and one-third of the sliced bananas (enough to cover the layer). Repeat the layering twice more. End with a final layer of pudding.
5. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours. Cookies should be tender when poked with a knife. This dessert is best served within 12 hours of assembling. To serve, garnish the top with the reserved cookies or cookie crumbs.
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