If you’re not from the South, banana pudding might conjure up an image of an instant pudding box and an ingredients list that includes artificial flavorings and Yellow No. 5.
That’s what came to my mind while awaiting dessert in Memphis recently. Moments later, I held a paper cup of fluffy, vanilla-scented mousse swirled with whipped cream and mottled with pecan shortbread crumbs. Fresh banana slices dotted the delicate mixture with just a hint of banana flavor, so unlike the oppressive yellow mess I was expecting.
Essentially a trifle, the basic formula is vanilla custard layered with sliced bananas and cookies (traditionally vanilla wafers) and topped with whipped cream or meringue. The dish is chilled, the cookies soften, and by the time you scoop it onto your plate, the flavors and textures have melded into a creamy, banana-studded delight heaping with nostalgia.
It’s a dessert stamped in Southern culture, a staple of barbecue joints, church potlucks and family gatherings. Its association with the South has been attributed to factors like the region’s fixation with super-sweet desserts (bonus that it doesn’t require an oven on a hot day) and bananas’ historical import route through Louisiana.
To get the true banana pudding experience, I decided to make it at home. I started with a recipe from blogger Laurie Triplette, similar to the version printed on every box of Nabisco Nilla Wafers. In true Southern style, it slowed down my Saturday afternoon as I stood at the stove, meditatively stirring, stirring, stirring my vanilla custard until it finally thickened.
Mountains of toasted meringue peaks made for a striking final presentation, and, fittingly, it went over well at a church potluck.
I took it a step further and tried the recipe from Food52.com editor Merrill Stubbs, adapted from Magnolia Bakery in New York City. The custard came together much faster (maybe that’s the New York twist), and the addition of unsweetened whipped cream gave it the fluffiness I longed for.
Banana pudding purists would scoff, but when I took a cue from Central BBQ in Memphis and used pecan sandies in place of vanilla wafers, I added depth and a slight crunch. This is a banana pudding even a Midwesterner can’t resist.