Nelson Mandela adored malva pudding—so says the New York Daily News and, perhaps more reliably, his longtime personal chef, Xoliswa Ndoyiya.
Oprah Winfrey is also a fan; it was served at The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy's first Christmas dinner in 2006 (and Wikipedia purports that this event gave rise to the popularity of malva pudding on the West Coast of the U.S., though when I reached out to Art Smith, her personal chef at the time, to interview him for this story, he said: “I am not South African, just made it on TV once.” A dead end!)
And Henry Kissinger reportedly called it “one of the finest desserts he’s ever eaten.” Maybe this makes you more—or less—eager to try it.
But I first heard about malva pudding not from any of these legendary people, but from my friend Stephen, who was raised in Denver by South African parents and who called it "one of his favorite all time things."
But malva pudding... what is it?
“Sugar and butter. Imagine eating a handful of sugar and butter.” That’s how Dean Jankelowitz—who serves malva pudding at his pair of New York restaurants, both named Jack's Wife Freda—would describe it to someone who’s never had it—or heard of it. (“Just delicious. Spongy, rich, fluffy, warm, indulgent,” he'd then elaborate.)
It's been on the menus of the restaurants, which Jankelowitz owns with his wife Maya, since they first opened in January 2012. But in his family, the dessert dates back much earlier. All the inspiration for the restaurants comes from Jankelowitz’s grandmother (that's Freda), who would bake him malva pudding during his childhood in South Africa, which Jankelowitz deems “the nation of sweet teeth and rich food.”
But if you knew none of the South African back story, you might think that malva pudding is just another of the beautiful, perfectly Instagrammable dishes at a restaurant that calls its food "American-Mediterranean."
And you probably wouldn't know that malva pudding is actually a cake—a springy cake that's sweetened with apricot preserves and leavened with baking soda and vinegar, then saturated with custard as soon as it comes out of the oven. Made like tres leches but with a deep caramel sweetness, it's the dessert equivalent of a warm bubble bath or a chaise lounge—something you'd like to sink into slowly (and never leave).
Jankelowitz suspects that it's this unfamiliarity with malva pudding among diners in the U.S. that makes it so popular at his restaurant: "People want to know what it's about." (I was one of those people!) And if Jack's Wife Freda is the first place someone tastes it, he or she may not have the context to know that the restaurant's recipe—which omits apricot preserves and bakes the puddings in cupcake-sized portions—strays from tradition.
When the recipe comes out in Jack's Wife Freda's forthcoming cookbook in March, even those who can't make it to the restaurant in real life will be introduced to this version of malva—and, likely, will try their hand at a dessert they've never tasted in their home kitchens.
Across the country, in Los Angeles, Jessica Koslow is simultaneously defining what Americans know to be "malva pudding." Her version, which she’s been serving at Sqirl since her jam business turned café in 2012—also comes comes in muffin-sized servings. She describes it as “a caramelized cake with oozy custard”—“almost like a pillow”—that tastes like “sticky toffee pudding, but it’s less of a sweet toffee and more of a cake-custard.”
“Four and a half years ago, no one [in the U.S.] was doing it,” says Jessica. At the time, she was looking for new-to-her desserts that jam played a part in. She heard about it from a friend who had spent a semester in South Africa. “She was like, ‘Look, this is something no one is really making here in the States’.”
Koslow, a self-proclaimed risk taker who approaches unfamiliar foods with an “I don’t know this and I want to know this” philosophy, started playing around with recipes, tweaking them here and there until she came up with her own. “I know that for whatever reason, how our recipe turns out is not similar to traditional malva pudding,” which Koslow has never had—"never ever.”
But for many of us—especially those of us who have never had malva pudding in South Africa—this is the only malva pudding we've ever met. When I asked a smart, in-the-know, food writer friend if she knew anything about malva pudding, she told me no—but that there was a recipe in Sqirl's new cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat.
"Just make these. You won’t be sorry," says the headnote, leaning on the ingredient list (and the photograph) rather than any reference to the dessert's origin, to convince eager bakers. “Everyone will thank you and they’ll wonder where you got this recipe, and you can tell them—right here, in this book!”
It's one tale, but it doesn’t tell the dessert’s full story—or even hint at where it was before it ended up on the menus (and in the cookbooks) of U.S. restaurants where the clientele are described as “young and stylish almost to a fault” (Jack’s Wife Freda) and “hipster-chic” (Sqirl). It doesn't tell the story of a dessert that, in the words of Marie Viljoen, a South African living in New York who writes the blog 66 Square Feet (Plus), "is South Africa."
“It’s on every menu in every restaurant in South Africa," Viljoen continues: "It is touted as deeply traditional Cape cookery and is waved like a sweet culinary flag of welcome at visitors who suffer [it] with remarkable fortitude and loosened belts.”
Marian Burros, cookbook author and longtime New York Times food columnist (perhaps you've heard of her plum torte?), was one of those visitors. Burros tried malva pudding, which she named the “most popular, and by far the most seductive” dessert in her 1996 article on South African cuisine, at the Cape Town Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel's high tea. She told me, now twenty years later, that she found it “very old-fashioned and very British” though she still can’t pinpoint exactly why she felt that way about it.
Its roots and its legacy run—or at least seem to run—deep. Ruen Ellis, who works closely with Madiba, a South African restaurant in Brooklyn, says the malva pudding they've been serving since 1999 is a “family recipe that has been passed down through generations,” not diverging from "the true apricot-based tradition.”
And not only is it old, you'd think—it's also everywhere. The South African cookbook publisher, food writer, and culinary consultant Tamsin Snyman, who estimates she’s enjoyed this "iconic dish" with its “strong old-fashioned/nostalgic/homey” associations" every week for the past forty years, credits her late mother Lannice Snyman, the author of thirteen books documenting South Africa’s changing cuisine, for being “very influential in bringing a foolproof recipe to most homes in South Africa through her  cookbook Tortoises and Tumbleweeds.”
So maybe it makes sense, then, that the recipe my friend Stephen asked his mom, Lesley, to forward to me comes from The Jubilee Happy Cooker, a community cookbook published by the Union of Jewish Women in Durban in 1987.
At first, I was puzzled by how such a traditional South African dessert had come to share a page with "Crunchy Noodle Pudding"—that is, noodle kugel—in this particular cookbook. (That confoundment doesn't even begin to touch on how I was feeling about the book's cover art, which Lesley told me she was horrified by—but which no one else seemed to react to.)
Even while South African Jews weren’t discriminated against in the systemic, brutal way that blacks were in apartheid South Africa, they considered themselves, at least in Lesley's Johannesburg community, as Jews first, South Africans second. “We lived in pockets in the city, and kept together a lot. I don't mean people didn't (or don't) mix with other people, but their main focus was their community.”
Apartheid rule meant minimal mixing of food cultures in pre-1994 South Africa, and “Jewish organizations put out their own [cook]books,” like The Happy Cooker. “I remember my mom only really had Jewish recipe books,” Lesley wrote.
So perhaps the inclusion of malva pudding in this book meant that it really was as optimistically unifying a dessert as Tamsin Snyman believes: In her words, it's "embraced nationally and celebrated by the huge diversity of people that make up the melting pot that is the rainbow of the South African nation." At first, this claim seemed lofty to me, and Ellis, of Madiba restaurant, countered it: It's "the go-to dessert in Afrikaans homes across the country, no matter the region,” he specified—the association is, undoubtedly, with those of Dutch descent.
But with the pervasiveness of malva pudding in restaurants, cookbooks, game lodges, and the small, family-run bake shops called tuisnywerheid, along with the confidence of everyone I spoke to that it was highly traditional, I figured malva pudding must be entwined with the country's history. It had to be old enough that it had had ample time to permeate the nation, even the pockets of Jews. Old enough to earn the recognition of Oprah, Kissinger, Mandela. Old enough that it is now served at high-end cafés on the coasts of the U.S. and memorialized in little-known cookbooks and culinary tomes from South Africa and, come 2016, baking in the oven in the Food52 test kitchen.
But that’s where the mystery begins. Because it turns out that malva pudding isn’t very old after all—which might come as a surprise to those who consider it to South Africa's classic, traditional, old-school favorite sweet.
When Marie Viljoen, the South African blogger who wrote that malva pudding is South Africa “pored over all of [her] mother’s oldest books, going back to 1918," she couldn’t find one reference to malva pudding.
And when Nikki Werner investigated the history of the dessert for Getaway magazine (“You know malva, right? A traditional Afrikaans pudding as entrenched as koeksisters and melktert?” her article begins), she found that the three common theories surrounding where the name came from were “anecdotal, [...] the claims unsubstantiated.” When she did eventually find a recipe with the same name dating back to 1924, it was missing the characteristic apricot jam and was boiled, not baked.
Both Viljoen and Werner traced the origin story of malva pudding back to South African food and wine expert Michael Olivier, who wrote on his website that he “can happily claim responsibility for the resurgence and subsequent popularity of Malva Pudding.” In an email, Olivier told me he's “known as the godfather of Malva pudding!” When I asked what that meant (can I declare myself the godmother of squishy cakes...?), he told me that he put the recipe—which came from a woman named Maggie Pepler—on the menu of the Boschendal Wine Estate in 1978.
Olivier met Pepler in the mid-1970s, when she was working at the Lanzerac Hotel in Stellenbosch, a town in the Cape Winelands. Some years later, when Olivier became the public relations manager for the nearby Boschendal Wine Estate, he asked Pepler to run the kitchen when the chef was on vacation and to teach his staff how to make bobotie (minced curried meat with an egg and cream topping), steamed fruit pudding, and the destined-for-fame malva pudding.
“The Malva Pudding immediately became famous and suddenly started appearing on [the menus of] mainly country-style restaurants,” Olivier recalls. “We happily gave out the recipe at the restaurant and obviously restaurateurs starting serving it. From there the rest is history. As one would expect, there are now a million recipes out there using baby apples, liqueur syrups, and any number of other toe-curling varieties. [...] I am now so used to the variations that the hair does not stand up on the back of my neck anymore.” (How would Olivier feel, I wonder, to know that Koslow sometimes makes the malva pudding at Sqirl with rhubarb preserves when apricots are out of season?)
According to Pepler’s 2013 obituary, she herself got the recipe—which used to be called telefoenpoeding because farmers’ wives would call each other up and read the recipe over the phone—from her mother. But while the particular ingredient list of malva pudding might prove unique, it’s not alone as a “type”: Jeanne Horak-Druiff, food, wine, and travel blogger, found a whole host of puddings in a 1918 cookbook: ertappelpoeding, armmanspoeding, damespoeding, goedkoop en lekker poeding, jongmans poeding, oujongnooi poeding, telefoonpoeding, skrikkeljaarpoeding, and vogelnes poeding. Malva pudding is even nearly identical to Jan Ellis pudding, named for the South African rugby player, save a teaspoon or two of vinegar and some slightly different proportions.
But while malva pudding may come from a long pudding tradition, harking back to Western Europe and the ancestors of sticky toffee pudding and the like, it has come to dominate the South African dessert arena as a singular, untouchable pudding entity.
Lesley, too, was surprised that she couldn't find the recipe for malva pudding in The Complete South African Cookbook, written in 1980 by well-known South African food reporter Magdaleen van Wyk. But thinking back, its relatively recent birth (and growth spurt) makes sense.
It wasn't until the 1980s, when her sister-in-law served malva pudding, that Lesley first tasted it. And as for that sister-in-law, the first time she herself ever tried the dessert was when she was visiting an ex-South African, here in the U.S., of all places—like an Argentinean trying her first alfajores in New York. One friend first heard about when her brother was dating an Afrikaans girl; another tasted it the restaurant of a winery that Lesley says "could well have been Boschendal."
“One thing about South African Jews,” Lesley wrote to me, “is that they like to be on the forefront of trends and new things. So, if it was going to become well-known and popular, the Jewish women would have made sure they had a recipe for it.” Hence malva pudding's place, only eleven years after the dessert was added to the Boschendal menu, in The Jubilee Happy Cooker—a book published for a Jewish community on the other side of the country.
If we date malva pudding back to 1978, understanding that its pudding brethren go back much further, it's a sprightly thirty-eight years old—significantly younger than my parents. In malva pudding's middle age, it's already achieved the rank of "classic." It's living the celebrity life that all desserts dream of.
Was it always poised for icon status? Could the explanation be as simple as the fact that, from a small ingredient list and a simple technique, you get a dessert that is comforting almost to the point of smothering? That makes you feel warm and loved? "I wish I could tell you a great story about [it], but I can’t,” said Marian Burros. "It isn’t hard to make—that's always appealing, no matter when."
What Jessica Koslow and Dean Jankelowitz call malva pudding will, I predict, somersault up and down the coasts and towards the center of the country, starting from Sqirl and Jack's Wife Freda and their respective cookbooks. Many of us will eat the dessert—or a spin-off (malva pudding Pop Tarts? malva pudding milkshakes? malva pudding French toast? malva pudding pie?!)—never knowing what it once was, never knowing what Maggie Peppler's version tasted like. And we will do so happily.
Such is the life of any not-so-traditional traditional dessert. Such is the life of any dish that rises to fame quickly, clinging to its original identity in some places, being redefined by forces beyond its control in others.
“So, as you say, not an ancient recipe by any means," Lesley concluded. "It has a nice old-fashioned sound to it though.” Ah, ye "olde" malva pudding—we've known you in your youth, now let's see what you become.
For the cake:
- 1 egg
- 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
- 1 tablespoon apricot jam
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon vinegar (I used apple cider)
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 pinch salt (generous)
For the sauce:
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 135 grams (about 9 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 112 grams (about 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon) sugar
- 3/8 cup (6 tablespoons) water
- 1 pinch salt (generous)