Many Southern desserts originated from simple ingredients and a necessity to make something good with little expenditure. Banana pudding is one of those desserts: inexpensive, easy, no baking required in the heat of a Southern summer, and almost everyone likes it.
I like to experiment with different varieties of a dish, but I’ve discovered that banana pudding lovers — not just those of us who like it, but those who LOVE it — don’t want experimentation. They just want the pudding, bananas and vanilla wafers. Maybe a meringue or whipped cream gracing the top, but no other deviations. So, although I’m partial to my version that includes a graham cracker crust and a layer of cream cheese, my husband wants only the old-fashioned classic dish (of course, the way his mother made it).
I have used the recipe on the vanilla wafer box and it’s fine — and likely what my husband’s mother made. But a few years ago I happened upon a recipe in The Gift of Southern Cooking, by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis. These are two Southern cooks whom I revere, along with Virginia Willis and Nathalie Dupree. I don’t follow the recipe exactly, as they use angel food cake and meringue and I’m not crazy about either one. But the custard…oh, the custard. Creamy, rich, with a subtle flavor of vanilla evoking tropical memories…this custard is sublime. Fortunately, the recipe makes a good amount since it requires A LOT of tasting before you can actually add the bananas and vanilla wafers. You must have at least three spoonfuls and then scrape the bowl.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 vanilla bean
- 12 egg yolks
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1/3 all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 box vanilla wafers
- 4-5 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced 1/4 – 1/2 inch thick
Twist the vanilla bean but don’t scrape it and then add it to a medium pot with the milk and 1 cup of the cream. Heat slowly until almost simmering and then cover, remove from heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes. This will fill your kitchen with a slight vanilla aroma and make your tummy start growling.
Put the egg yolks in a bowl and whisk in the sugar, then the flour and salt. I like to use vanilla sugar, which my friend Tammy made for me: put some sugar in a container with a vanilla bean and let it sit for a few weeks. Very subtle, but adds another layer of flavor to any dessert.
Whisk until completely smooth and make sure there are no lumps hiding in there. Remove the vanilla bean from the milk and slowly whisk the milk into the egg yolks. Then put all the goodness back into the saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until the custard thickens, whisking constantly. This should take about 3-5 minutes. It you don’t have a whisk with a large, heat-proof handle then you’ll probably want to use an oven mitt to hold the whisk since it can get pretty warm. Don’t try to skip out on the whisking constantly step or you will have scorched custard and you will cry.
Be sure you scrape the bottom and sides of the pan. After the custard begins to boil, cook for one minute longer and then remove it from the heat. The custard will be very thick. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a large bowl.
Immediately whisk in the remaining 1 cup of cream and the three teaspoons of vanilla. And that is the secret: whisking in the cream after cooking will make your custard smooth and silky and utterly delicious.