Is it a stretch to call this dessert a "cake"? (Crazier things have happened before.)
The top poofs and browns like a sponge cake, but underneath its airy crumb lies an even freer, looser, wilder underbelly. Leavened solely by whipped egg whites and bound by 1/3 cup of flour, it's both a custard that doesn't get tiresome for lack of textural variety and a cake that's self-frosted from the bottom up.
But while the texture of this dessert will surprise you, it's got nothing on the flavor.
Too often, grapefruit desserts are either wet and syrupy (with obstructive rings of citrus), or muted and shy (grapefruit in name, not in essence): But here, the grapefruit is serious and confident and leaning in: a flavor that's strong enough to stand on its own but cooperative enough to handle all sorts of variations.
The smartest part of this recipe—adapted from the blog When Harry Met Sally and originally published in The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook—is the first step: Fresh grapefruit juice is simmered on the stovetop until it reduces from 3 cups to 1/2. You sharpen the tart, concentrate the sweet, eliminate the excess liquid. The resulting flavor is so pleasingly bitter, you'll swear someone tipped a bit of Aperol into the batter (which is not a bad idea).
Serve it warm out of bowls, but also save some for the next day, when the two layers relax into one still-spoonable dessert that feels, thanks to the crème fraîche and yogurt, like the lightest cheesecake you've ever had—one that perks you up (and makes you pucker!) instead of putting you to bed.
Mellow and accentuate its flavor.
While the original recipe calls for regular sugar, vanilla sugar helps to soften the fruit's sourness and build a more well-rounded flavor. If you don't have a vanilla bean, add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. Or, go with your own flavorings: Cardamom or ground ginger could be great additions.
Introduce a new texture.
All melt and no crunch, this cake is like an entirely velveteen outfit. And maybe it could benefit from some studs or, you know, pleather. I toasted crushed Nilla wafers on the stovetop with butter and vanilla sugar until the cookies were even better-tasting than when they came out of the package. Add a handful of crushed cookies to the bowls before or after scooping in the pudding. Corn Flake Brittle or chopped toasted pistachios would also work nicely.
Go for the booze.
Since this cake already tastes like an Aperol Spritz, why not make it official? Top it with whipped cream spiked with 1/2 teaspoon Aperol or Campari. My preferred topping is crème fraîche spotted with a couple dashes of Angostura bitters and, for even more crunch, sweetened with raw sugar. Or, replace some of the fruit juice with alcohol before you reduce it and see what happens.
Choose another type of citrus.
The sharpness of grapefruit is distinct, but other citrus fruits—Meyer lemons, limes, blood oranges—will also work. If you're using a naturally sweet dessert, consider experimenting with reducing the sugar (but go slowly).
For the grapefruit pudding:
- 3 cups red grapefruit juice (from about 3 grapefruits) plus zest from 2 grapefruits
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- 1 cup (generous) sugar
- 1/3 cup flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup whole-milk plain or Greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup crème fraîche
- 4 eggs, separated
For getting fancy:
- 1 tablespoon (scant) butter
- 1 cup Nilla Wafers crumbs
- 1 tablespoon (scant) vanilla sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- Crème fraîche
- Angostura bitters
- Raw sugar