Is there any dessert in the world better than banana pudding? I mean, yes, many desserts may be better, but while I am eating banana pudding, I’m always convinced that it is the best of all possible desserts. It has so much to recommend it: creamy vanilla pudding, cookies and of course bananas. Extra whipped cream makes this good thing even more scrumdiddlyumptious.
The maternal side of my family comes steeped in banana pudding, so to speak. They’re all Southern women who grew up eating it and then making it themselves, mounds of it for every family gathering with made-from-scratch pudding and plenty of Nilla Wafers. In my mind, banana pudding is connected with good times, family togetherness and the hazy mysteries of motherhood. There were apparently some secret alchemical formulas known only to my mother and grandmother. They entered the kitchen, banged some pots and pans and stirred some things on the stove, then came out again with something delicious. If that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.
Or perhaps they just followed a recipe — the very same recipe that I have here in my hot little hands. It’s on a yellowed index card and looks like it was penciled out in a rush, making my mom’s terrible handwriting even harder to read. I will do my best to decipher her code and bring you what I believe is an authentic Southern banana pudding.
First of all, the pudding. I’ve made gallons and gallons of instant pudding, but I’d never made pudding from scratch until I tried this recipe. It uses two 12-ounce cans of evaporated milk mixed with ½ cup water instead of fresh milk, perhaps to lend the pudding a richer flavor and prevent it from scalding while cooking. It does indeed cook to a rich, golden hue, almost like flan and with a similar caramelly flavor.
Blend ¾ cup sugar with 3 eggs and 4 teaspoons cornstarch and a couple dashes of salt, mixing until there are no lumps. Add ½ cup of the milk mixture with 1 to 2 teaspoons of vanilla and blend until smooth. Set aside. Don’t get distracted and accidentally add baking powder instead of cornstarch, which is exactly what I did. I scooped out as much of the baking powder as I could. In the end, I don’t think it made an appreciable difference. Maybe baking powder should always be added to pudding to make it, uh, fluffier.
Heat the remaining milk mixture on low heat but don’t bring to a boil. Pour the sugar-egg-cornstarch mixture slowly into the warm milk while still on the stovetop, stirring constantly. Continue to stir on low heat until the mixture thickens. “Takes lots of time,” states the recipe card, and my mom wasn’t kidding; it took 10 or 12 minutes for the pudding to thicken. It was hard, during that time, not to keep slurping up spoonfuls of warm, creamy vanilla soup. When it reaches pudding consistency, take it off the stove to cool for about 20 minutes.
Here’s the part that’s a bit mysterious to me: the layering. I’m not sure how it goes and it’s not clear from Mom’s instructions. The recipe card just says, “Arrange cookies and bananas,” because of course every Southern mom would understand on a cellular level how that’s done. Does that mean Nilla Wafers go down first, then bananas on top of that? I searched the internet and the consensus seems to be: yes.
So put down a layer of cookies, then top it with a layer of banana slices, then pour about half the pudding over that, then do another layer of cookies and bananas followed by the rest of the pudding. I used about half a box of vanilla wafers and 4 just-ripe bananas.
And that’s the end of Mom’s recipe, so we’re winging it now, but I know that banana pudding does need to be refrigerated for a couple hours to give the cookies a chance to soften. Before serving, top with a fluffy cloud of whipped cream sprinkled with crumbled cookies or decorated with cookie halves. (I would note here that whipped cream is optional but it’s really not. Get that whipped cream on there or suffer the consequences.) Banana slices look pretty on top for about three seconds before they start to turn brown, but if that’s how quickly you intend to eat the pudding, go for it.
My mom always used a big round bowl, although for smaller family meals my grandmother layered the pudding in individual dessert dishes. I like it both ways because no matter what vessel it’s served in, it’s still banana pudding in my mouth.