Essay: A surefire recipe for romance

In this family, the key to a man's heart has always been lemon pudding.

My mother couldn't believe it when she first laid eyes on my father. It was 1935 when she opened the door to see him standing on her family's front porch.

His hair was stuck to his face and dripping from hair oil he'd slathered on to impress her. At 16, he probably had a lot to learn about hair care products, but still.

She looked at him, missing his good looks through the soupy strings of hair, wondering who he was and what he wanted.

"I'm Dave Diegelman, and I'm new in town." He brushed his hair out of his eyes – probably to get a good look at her – and then put out his hand to shake hers.

Pushing the screen door toward him she touched him for the first time. Rather than sending shivers through her, his touch left her hand oily.

He'd seen her from across the street the day before, he said, and was sorry to be forward but he wanted to meet her.

After that, she avoided him, thinking he was odd. But she seemed to be in the minority – other girls at school were gathering around him like fans at an all-star game.

What was it about him? Now that she could view him properly, minus the oil, she saw that his black hair had a lovely sheen and a soft wave. She also noticed his warm brown eyes. Seeing her interest, he started coming by.

It wasn't long until she became a bit unsure of herself. Did he really like her?

"Have him over for dinner," her mother suggested, "and make him something special."

"I don't cook," my mother responded.

"Sure you do; you make that delicious lemon sponge pudding." My mother had forgotten about the recipe her best friend, Bethel, had given her.

"OK," she agreed.

On the night of the dinner, my dad showed up with a small bouquet of lavender roses from his mother's garden. Although he always remembered the dinner fondly, he never could remember what they ate.

Except for the lemon sponge pudding.

In fact, all through the years, it was my dad's favorite dessert. My grandmother always said that her idea to serve it that night was what clinched the romance that eventually led to marriage.

That may have been. Wonderful things seem to happen whenever it's served. Circumstances change, people perk up, moods lighten. In short, magic happens.

My 13-year-old daughter, Emily, grew up with lemon sponge pudding and the stories surrounding it. Only recently did I realize she'd been paying attention to them. Out of the blue, she asked me, "Can Owen come over to dinner?"

"Who?" I asked.

"You know, one of the guys who swims over at Lauren's with all of us. We've been hanging out at recess lately, and I like him. He likes me, too."

Before I could answer, she continued. "We could serve the lemon sponge pudding."

I didn't know what to say. Who was Owen? Not having met him, no objections leapt immediately to the tip of my tongue. I said I guessed it would be fine, wishing I could have taken back the years of lore surrounding the dessert. How was I to know she'd ask to serve it at 13?

On the appointed night, I was having second thoughts when the doorbell rang. Emily was upstairs, so I answered it.

Standing at the door was a boy I'd seen a few times before. I had to smile when I saw him brush his long hair out of his eyes, hair that could have used a bit more attention in the shower. A gold hoop in his ear glinted in the late-afternoon sun. I took a deep breath and invited him in.

At dinner we made the polite and careful conversation of people who are new to each other and have more than a few years between them.

But when Emily served the lemon sponge pudding, the mood changed.

"Honestly, I don't usually like lemon," he said, "but this is amazing. His face sparkled. "Where did you get it?"

"I made it!" Emily said with a grin.

Things haven't changed much since that day. Owen still comes over, and I still have occasional second thoughts, as great as Owen is.

But once the wind is stirred, you can't gather it in a basket and put the lid on. What Emily started that day, adolescence is continuing. And I have to admit, the lemon sponge pudding was extra special that night. Her grandma and grandpa would have been proud.

Lemon Sponge Pudding

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons flour

Pinch of salt

2 egg yolks, beaten till frothy

1 cup milk

Rind and juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 egg whites, stiffly beaten

Whipped cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Sift sugar, flour, and salt into a mixing bowl. Add egg yolks, milk, lemon juice and rind, and melted butter and blend well. Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites.

Pour mixture into a lightly buttered 1-1/2-quart soufflé dish, and set it in a pan of hot water. Bake 45 to 50 minutes or until puffed and golden. When cooled to room temperature, spoon into 4 small serving dishes. Top with whipped cream, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

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