This Dessert Anthropologist Is Recreating Long-Lost Recipes
You could call Valerie Gordon a dessert anthropologist, but some would call her a detective.
Eight years ago, the cookbook author and founder of Valerie Confections was petitioned to recreate a very specific item: the Coffee Crunch Cake from Blum’s Bakery. The now-closed shop had eight locations throughout California, most memorably on Union Square in San Francisco, where Gordon grew up. If you lived in the state during the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, odds are this beloved bakery is embedded in your memory. Their Coffee Crunch Cake, which has been the topic of many a Chowhound thread and blog, was a jewel in their crown.
Just to be clear, it wasn’t a coffee cake; no, this was a Coffee Crunch Cake, a different thing entirely. Stacked with a chiffon body (similar to an angel food cake), it was topped with coffee-kissed whipped cream and iconic shards of what can best be described as “crunch.”
“There’s a lot of people that remember that cake,” Gordon says. “Probably in the millions? It’s an exacting combination of flavor and texture. The way these things come together is really memorable.”
There was no shortage of recipes online when Gordon was researching it, but nothing felt exactly right. “Some of them were very odd; like, there definitely wasn’t coffee in the actual cake,” she says. A few bakeries had created their own versions, but they weren’t necessarily faithful renditions.
Gordon really wanted to recreate the exact experience. “Coming to the essence of the cake was very important,” she says. She narrowed down the pool to a few recipes that made the most sense and started testing them.
Although she had vivid memories of eating the cake growing up, she talked to people to hear their sense memories of it. “It’s like with any kind of anthropological analysis,” she says. “There are certain details that people might remember differently, but you try to get to the meat of it. You can always tell when someone has a strong sense of food memory, when they can talk about the texture of the crust or the thickness of the whip cream.”
Finally, Gordon arrived at the recipe and decided to feature the cake at her store. The Los Angeles Times Magazine, when it existed, ran a feature on it. “We literally got 125 calls the next day,” she says. “People were saying, ‘Oh my God, I remember that cake, I haven’t seen it since forever.’” She’s kept it on the menu since, and you can still get it if you go to one of three locations of her store, Valerie Confections, in Los Angeles.
That was the beginning of a quest for Gordon. “When we got that response we were like, ‘Whoa, this has an impact.’ And then I thought, what are the other desserts that have the same impact?”
She started browsing old menus at the Los Angeles Library archives for inspiration. She noticed that, at a particular restaurant, some desserts might reappear on a menu decade after decade, while others fell away. This cued her into which items might hold emotional resonance for people. The grapefruit cake at The Brown Derby, for example, was another such dessert. In the coming year, she’s hoping to explore Texas sheet cakes.
“Sometimes people have a really strong sense memory to a specific dessert, and I hear it over and over,” she says. “So, in my small circle, if I contact fifteen people who remember this dessert, how many people in general do?”
In her culinary research, Gordon also looks at online forums to cull memories of desserts. She’s exacting with ingredients, examining micro-regional food trends. “The ingredients that were around in the ‘50s were very different than what we have access to now,” she says. If she’s researching pies from say, Vermont in the ‘60s, she’ll try to deduce what type of cream was used at the time. Was there a layer of fat when you opened the bottle? Was it buttery yellowish, or white? How viscous was it? Flour, too, has incredible regional nuances in the United States—White Lily Flour, for example, is a Southern staple that’s often cited as the secret to excellent biscuits.
While Gordon grew up eating Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake, she’s never tasted most of the bygone desserts she recreates. A lot of them are from beloved bakeries that have since closed, leaving behind only Proustian nostalgia—often without traceable recipes.
“I’m a conduit,” she says. “With art, with literature, with architecture, the history and lineage stay alive. You can just read the book or go to a museum to see the painting. With food, you have to make it in order for its legacy to continue.”