How to make the perfect banana pudding – recipe

<span>Felicity Cloake’s banana pudding.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.</span>
Felicity Cloake’s banana pudding.Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.

Banana pudding wasn’t on my radar until a chance conversation with American food writer Charlotte Druckman, editor of the excellent anthology Women on Food, who alerted me to its existence – plus anything labelled “pudding” has my immediate and undivided attention, anyway. In the US, the term refers to a particular variety of thick and milky dessert – what we might call a custard, or a pastry cream, or even a blancmange, depending on the method used – and this particular banana-studded pudding/trifle hybrid has a long history, first popping up in print in the late 19th century*, by which time the tropical fruit was well established in North America.

Why it became particularly associated with the South in the mid-20th century is a mystery that South Carolina food writer Robert Moss has probed without success, but the fact remains that “you can’t swing a dead cat in a Southern barbecue joint without hitting a bowl of banana pudding”, or, he adds, at a Southern church picnic, holiday gathering or tailgate, for that matter. And there’s a good reason for that: it’s ridiculously good. If you, like me, have a nostalgic fondness for the bananas and custard of childhood, this is the dinner-party version, with just a touch of American glamour. (Oh, and I’m told that, strictly speaking, it’s known as banana puddin’ in the South.)

* “Banana pudding” also makes a slightly earlier appearance in colonial “explorer” Henry Morton Stanley’s accounts of his murderous travels in Central Africa, but it seems pretty unlikely it was the same dish. It may, however, have inspired African-American cooks to create their own version?

The bananas

This dish does require some advance preparation, not only to give it a chance to set, but also to ensure the bananas are ripe enough to make their presence known. Whatever your preference in the colour department, using the mild, starchy, pale green fruit sold in British supermarkets will reduce them to a mere slippery texture, so buy them several days ahead.

The vast majority of banana pudding recipes just slice them into the bowl, but Millie Peartree, of New York’s Millie Peartree’s Fish Fry and Soul Food, caramelises the slices in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon first, which is a quick and easy way to bring out their sweetness (some add rum or bourbon to the pan, too, which would almost certainly be a good move).

Cooks Illustrated magazine, meanwhile, roasts the fruits in their skins to intensify the flavour, then peels and mashes them into the custard, along with a judicious squeeze of lemon juice to prevent browning; and pastry chef Stella Parks infuses milk with sliced banana for several hours before turning that milk into custard. I like both of these ideas – the more banana, the better, as far as I’m concerned – and the roast banana permutation especially, even if it does give the custard a slightly grey hue. But I feel duty-bound to honour the tradition that banana pudding ought to be an equal partnership of perfumed vanilla and sweet, slightly acidic fruit, and that to combine the two would rob the dish of a pleasurable contrast. That said, I could eat a whole bowl of roast banana custard on its own, and probably will be doing so in the near future.

Cooks Illustrated also suggests tossing the bananas in lemon juice, which, if you don’t go down the caramelising route, is a very sensible idea, given that this is a dessert that needs to sit for several hours.

The wafers

Early recipes for banana pudding, such as that in the Picayune’s Creole Cook Book of 1901 (published by the New Orleans newspaper of the same name), use stale cake, much like the British trifles that seem likely to be one of the pudding’s direct forebears; the Settlement Cookbook of a couple of years later suggests ladyfingers as an alternative. Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking, on the other hand, uses homemade angel food cake, a light, airy fatless sponge, with Peacock recalling that his Grandmaw Peacock would deploy “whatever she had on hand … leftover cake, toasted white bread, or even stale biscuits” (biscuits here referring to the scone-like bakes beloved of the South, rather than cookies).

Many articles online inform me that this all changed in 1921, when a home cook called Laura Kerley provided her recipe with vanilla cookies to a local newspaper in the distinctly unsouthern town of Bloomington, Illinois, an idea so inspired that some two decades later Nabisco, manufacturers of the hugely popular Nilla wafers, began printing a banana pudding recipe on the box. This seems like quite a long gap to me but, whatever the true timeline, almost all recipes these days call for the things. I manage to procure a carton at some expense, and am surprised to find them less like ladyfingers than I’d imagined; instead, they’re light and crunchy, and not dissimilar in texture to Biscoff cookies, but without the spice.

Assuming you don’t want to shell out on an imported box from the US, you have a few options. First, you could use trifle sponges, which are readily available in the UK and almost as light as Peacock’s angel food cake, but if you want to go down the cake route, you’re better off baking your own, because, unlike a trifle, the cake element in banana pudding isn’t soaked, which makes both trifle sponges and ladyfinger (or savoiardi) biscuits a bit dry in this context. Cut the cake into slices and leave it to go slightly stale (which it will quite rapidly), or lightly toast it in a dry frying pan. (Do not make the mistake I did and put it in the toaster.)

Alternatively, make a more modern version with biscuits of your choice – some suggest chessmen (shortbread-style butter cookies) and even chocolate chip cookies. In the interests of keeping things as classic as possible, however, I’m going to stick to vanilla wafers. Here I’m very grateful to food writer and Southern food lover Nicola Miller, and to chef Jen Greenhalgh of London’s Two Dogs Down, both of whom generously contribute “dupe” recipes – Nic’s from Todd Wilbur’s Top Secret Recipe site and Jen’s one she helped develop when working at Mississippi chef Brad McDonald’s former London restaurant Lockhart. Both, I’m pleased to say, are a success in the substitute department; Wilbur’s version, with icing and granulated sugar and shortening (vegetable fat), is crisper and more vanilla-forward, while the Lockhart take includes sorghum syrup, which Greenhalgh tells me can be swapped for light corn syrup for a flavour truer to the Nilla original. It also contains more fat, so is undeniably tastier, but slightly softer and chewier in the middle. Tasty being the name of the game here, I’ve adapted her version to be crunchier, while retaining much of its buttery character. (If you don’t make your own cookies, I’d highly recommend tossing them in salted browned butter, a tip stolen from food writer Grant Melton’s recipe, which makes them quite extraordinarily delicious, as salted butter tends to.)

Though it’s beyond my remit here to think outside the classic box, I’m intrigued by the “sweet and savoury” banana pudding recipe from Ronni Lundy’s book Victuals, recommended to me by Bethia Woolf of Columbus Food Adventures, which calls for miso-infused banana bread in place of cookies: “My cookbook club still talks about this … years after we made it.” One day, when I’ve recovered from this little lot, I’ll see what all the fuss is about.

The pudding

Or custard, though starch-thickened pudding is really more like a pastry cream. Given its fame, I feel obliged to try New York’s Magnolia Bakery’s (a name Sex and the City fans may recall as Carrie and Miranda’s cupcake supplier of choice almost a quarter of a century ago – ouch) take, which calls for instant vanilla pudding mix, a key ingredient in many 20th-century American desserts. A Californian friend quickly disabuses me of the notion that this pudding is anything like our own Angel Delight; less whipped and moussey, she says nostalgically, thicker, but not as solid as, say, a blancmange – it should be spoonable but not runny, light but not airy. Jell-O vanilla pudding is available online but, as with those Nilla wafers, you’ll pay through the nose for it in the UK.

Magnolia’s recipe mixes said pudding mix with condensed milk, which makes it astonishingly sweet. If you do go with the packet stuff, I’d prepare it with milk, as suggested by the manufacturers and by food writer Shaunda Necole of the Soul Food Pot blog, but it’s cheaper (and, given the ingredients list, arguably healthier) to make your own mix. Options range from Lewis and Peacock’s very rich recipe using egg yolks and heavy cream to the much lighter combination of milk and whole eggs favoured by Virginia home cook Stephanie Harris. In between are Peartree’s and Cooks Illustrated’s recipes, which use half and half (an American milk/cream mixture with a fat content of 10.5-18%, as opposed to heavy cream’s 36-38% and the UK’s own double cream, which has 48%), and Melton’s combination of milk and heavy cream.

Much as I love anything rich and creamy, I find the heavy cream versions are simply too, well, heavy (though a few of my testers disagree, and vehemently, so, as ever, know that this is simply my own perfect version). Also, while useful as a setting agent, there’s a feeling that the whites in the whole egg version give it faint, er, egginess. To my mind, the best way to replicate the creamy delicacy of the pudding mix (which, unlike some of the others, is light enough to eat on its own and in quantity) is to use whole milk and egg yolks, and to thicken them with the customary cornflour. Feel free, however, to swap in single or double cream to suit your own taste. (Melton, interestingly, adds buttermilk to the mixture, which, as he says, “gives the custard a tangy zip of acidity”. Unfortunately, it also makes it much runnier than is customary; I quite like it, because I’m used to the soggier texture of trifle, but be warned.)

The topping

If you’re making this to impress, I cannot recommend Lewis and Peacock’s toasted meringue strongly enough; it looks amazing, and the flavour works well with the other ingredients without adding any weight to the dish as a whole. That said, my personal preference is whipped cream. This may sound counterintuitive, given my earlier objection to a heavy cream custard, but such desserts, as all trifle fans know, rely on a range of textures and tastes. A lighter custard allows for a richer but more modest layer of topping, a gilding of the lily that keeps the whole thing just the right side of stodgy.

To heighten the contrast, and prompted by Melton, I’m going to add a little soured cream, too, to inject a whisper of acidity into a dessert that otherwise tends towards the sweet and creamy, though, like Necole, you might like to use cream cheese instead (whisk this to loosen it before beating it into the whipped cream, though, or you’ll end up with lumps).

Crumbled biscuits and sliced bananas are the usual decorations, but if you’re a fan of salty-sweet dishes, Melton’s salted peanuts are a clever touch. (Pecans would also work well, and look more decorative.)

Make sure you give this dessert time to sit. It’s best made at least four hours in advance, and will happily keep in the fridge for a day or so. I wouldn’t add the toppings until just before serving, though.

Perfect banana pudding

Prep 20 min
Infuse 1 hr
Cook 1 hr 15 min
Chill 2 hr +
Serves 8-10

6 ripe yellow bananas
1½ tbsp salted butter
2 tbsp light brown sugar
ed nutmeg (optional)

For the biscuits (or use 30 Nilla wafers or other crunchy biscuits, or slices of slightly stale or lightly toasted angel food cake)
75g icing sugar, sifted
50g caster sugar
125g butter
, softened
30g beaten egg
¾ tsp vanilla extract
165g flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp fine salt

For the vanilla custard
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
1 litre (1¾ pints) whole milk
6 egg yolks
150g caster sugar
50g cornflour
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the topping
250ml whipping cream
60ml soured cream
1 handful salted peanuts or pecans, roughly chopped (optional)

Start by making the biscuits, if you are. Beat the sugars and butter until well combined, then beat in the egg and vanilla.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl, then stir into the butter mix until it all comes together into a ball of dough.

Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6, and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper. Tear off small pieces of the dough, roll these into balls, then arrange on the trays spaced well apart.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown, then remove and leave to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the custard. Slit the vanilla pod down its length, scrape out the seeds and put these and the empty pod in a large saucepan with the milk. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat and leave to infuse for about an hour.

Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour in a heatproof bowl set on a damp cloth or similar to anchor it to the workspace. Bring the milk back to a simmer, remove and discard the spent vanilla pod, then pour a little of the hot milk into the egg yolk bowl, whisking as you do so. Continue adding the milk bit by bit until there’s about a quarter of it in the bowl, then pour the lot into the milk pan and heat again, stirring continuously, until the mix thickens.

Once the custard begins to bubble on top, cook, still stirring, for just another 90 seconds (set the timer), then take off the heat and leave to cool. Once cool, stir in the vanilla extract.

Peel the bananas and cut them into 1cm-thick slices. Heat the butter in a large frying pan until foaming, then stir in the sugar and nutmeg, if using. Add the sliced bananas, toss to coat for a minute or so, then take off the heat.

To build the pudding, fill the base of a large glass dish with a quarter of the custard. Top with a layer each of half the biscuits and half the bananas, then repeat. Finish with a layer of custard, cover and chill for at least two hours, and preferably longer.

To finish, whip the cream to soft peaks, then fold in the soured cream, if using. Dollop this on the top layer of set custard, and finish with the peanuts or pecans, if using; crumbled cookies, a sprinkling of nutmeg or cinnamon, or a few extra pieces of banana tossed in lemon juice also work well as toppings.

  • Banana puddin’: what are your memories of making and eating this Southern favourite? Should it be solid and sliceable, or fluffy and runny? Predominantly vanilla- or banana-flavoured, boozy or temperate? And can anyone throw more light on its history?