By FRANK SABATINI JR. | La Mesa Courier
If you do a Google search for “pudding shops” or “pudding cafes,” you won’t come up with anything except for hundreds of results related to bread pudding.
But we’re talking about classic North American-style pudding, the smooth and velvety kind we spooned from small glass bowls as kids while nestled on the couch in front of our favorite TV shows.
San Diego native Toran Grays is doing what no culinary entrepreneur to our knowledge has ever done anywhere in the country. He’s opening a retail business that primarily sells pudding made in small batches.
Grays was lucky to grow up with the homemade version opposed to ready-made puddings or those originating from powdered mixes. The family’s top flavor was banana, a recipe authored by his late great-grandmother, Agnes White, who is precisely his inspiration for opening Extraordinary Banana Pudding in La Mesa on March 14.
The shop will spotlight her signature scratch recipe in conjunction with other flavors that Grays developed such as pistachio, red velvet, lemon, chocolate, coconut and more. For the holidays, pumpkin spice will enter the lineup.
“My great-grandmother and I were very close. She lived in Mississippi and passed away when I was 16 years old. It was her dream to someday open a pudding place,” Grays recalled.
While that never happened, White always made the pudding for Grays when he visited her in the South, or when she traveled to San Diego.
“As I got older, it became a big thought of mine to open a pudding shop in her honor,” he added, noting that his roughly 800-square-foot shop will greet with a modern design and photographs of White and other family members.
Banking on the novelty of the business and the quality of the product, Grays is currently transitioning from working as a floor manager at Catalina Offshore Products to immersing himself full-time into the shop.
His small-batch puddings will be sold in rectangular plastic trays with snap-on lids from refrigerated units inside the store. They’re priced at $8 for 8 ounces; $12 for 12 ounces; and $30 for party trays that feed nearly 25 people. Though tailored for takeout, the shop features a few tables for enjoying the specialty product onsite.
Homemade pudding offers a particular decadence in both texture and flavor. It is simultaneously creamy and airy — like a hybrid of mousse and crème brulee.
Grays calls it “an American staple,” noting that “it brings me back to when I was a kid eating meals with my family.”
Adhering faithfully to his great-grandmother’s recipe, Grays uses whole milk as the base. He adds in light cream, whey protein, and a little corn syrup for sheen. Fresh fruits and extracts are used to achieve the various flavors.
For the banana pudding, slices of the fruit are added right before the admixture cools and thickens. It is then garnished with wafer cookies, which are also used as a light bedding to most of the other puddings.
Grays said he will eventually introduce to the menu cakes and cupcakes, frosted with none other than — pudding. Those too hail from White’s recipe collection. By then, coffee will be available as well.
“My grandmother was a really good baker and did a lot of cakes and pies. Her recipes for them, and the pudding, are all written out on index cards that are over 50 years old,” he noted.
Located in a small strip plaza at 8257 El Paso St. in La Mesa, the grand opening of Extraordinary Banana Pudding will be held from noon to 6 p.m., March 14. It will feature catered food, live music, and pudding samples.
Regular store hours thereafter will run from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday; until 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays.
For more information, call 619-642-6274 or visit extraordinarybananapudding.com.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.