Valerie Gordon, Dessert Detective

How an investigative baker resurrects the obscure but beloved desserts the rest of us have forgotten

The author, Valerie Gordon, owner of Valerie Confections in Los Angeles.Wes Frazer

Some people call me a dessert anthropologist.

Culling together taste memories, recipe fragments, and archaic ingredients, I resurrect desserts from bygone legendary restaurants. At my Los Angeles bakery, Valerie Confections, we recreate several, including the Coconut Cream Pie of the Bullocks Wilshire Tea Room, served for more than 40 years at the Art Deco-era department store, and Scandia's Apple Cake, a terrifically dense torte layered with five pounds of thinly sliced apple, revived from a 1940s Hollywood haunt.

Recently, I began rummaging around for information about Ships, a locally beloved diner that closed in 1995. For years, I passed its hulking space-age sign at the corner of La Cienega and Olympic Boulevard, which remained after the restaurant closed its doors. Ships it declared. As a Los Angeles transplant, I'd missed out on the landmark's 24-hour glory days. Never closed read another sign, though by now it always was. Everyone went to Ships. Almost daily, Mae West enjoyed an early dinner of a Shipshape Burger and a fresh-squeezed orange juice in the backseat of her chauffeured Cadillac. She obliged autograph requests with personalized 8x10 glossies passed via her muscular driver. Every Sunday morning for several years, Walt Disney made the 35-mile commute from his Toluca Lake estate to Ships' Westwood branch. In Disneyland's America the Beautiful film, the Ships sign shines brightly in the Los Angeles skyline, a direct request from Mr. Disney.

When I first dug around for Ships menus and unearthed the curious Mrs. Johnston's Famous French Cream Pie, a failed mission seemed imminent. People remembered the Shipshape Burger or the delight of toasting one's own bread in tableside toasters, but memories of the pie seemed lost to time. Eventually though, I located Stephen Shipman, the son of Ships' founder, Emmett Shipman, who graciously talked me through the pie's every detail. Having eaten a slice weekly throughout his childhood in the 1960s, Stephen remembered the height of the cream, its density, the size of the banana slices, the toasting of the almond garnish. And of course, I had to ask, who was Mrs. Johnston? Although the coffee shop baked deep-dish boysenberry pies in-house, in the early years the "famous" cream pie was outsourced from Mrs. Johnston's, a local bakery.

Classic French Banana Cream Pie

cream pie
Mrs. Johnston's Famous French Cream Pie » is made with a no-cook whipped cream filling and slices of banana and toasted almond for texture.Wes Frazer

When recreating a historic recipe—which generally requires eight to ten tests—I look to similar blueprints of the era as a barometer for trending ingredients and methods. In this case, a standard 1950s cream pie crust used a mix of shortening and butter, and Shipman stressed its distinctly crumbly texture as well as its just-golden color, distinct from today's Maui-tan crusts. To achieve this, I used enough water to barely hold the ingredients together and baked it at a high temperature for a short time.

When it came to the all-important cream filling, I recalled my baby boomer mother's longing descriptions of the cream she grew up with—its buttery, smooth texture, which would beat into a thick, dense ivory cloud. Today, some small-scale dairies, like Straus in Marin County, have returned to the old-fashioned style of high butterfat ratios, forgoing stabilizers and homogenization. I tend to lean toward a lightly sweetened cream, but because this pie does not require custard, a more aggressive level of sugar was needed, as was beating the cream until medium stiff so a slice could be cut away cleanly. Shipman meticulously noted that Mrs. Johnston's version was decorated with star-tip piping and large, decorative swoops.

When Shipman and I started testing the results, I watched for his reaction. At first bite, he professed to have goose bumps. Though not prone to sentimentality, he described being immediately transported to the restaurant that defined his formative years and his family. Desserts accompany the best memories in our lives: the reward after a long day, the silhouette of a wedding or a childhood birthday. Resurrecting these cherished memories and helping people to relive them is not just a vicarious thrill; it's the pinnacle of my experience as a pastry chef.

The last time we spoke, Shipman was particularly chatty, relishing the revival of his favorite pie. “If my dad was still here, he could tell you so much more than I can,” he said. “Everyone went to Ships.”