I always enjoyed banana pudding. It was a part of my upbringing. The "classic" I grew up with was made with Jello pudding mix, vanilla wafers and bananas. Southerners are known for shortcut cooking (using mixes and pre-made ingredients). I am not sure why. Maybe because it can be kinda warm (OK, it can be really hot . . . and humid) in the summer and reducing time in the kitchen is a good thing. Summer heat is a good excuse to cook less, especially in the days before A/C. Who knows? I lived through an era of canned foods and box mixes and so that is how my mom cooked her banana pudding. She had five kids, I am sure her hands were full.
Bananas do not grow in the southern US. Usually regional dishes are based on local ingredients. So I did a little digging to see if there was a history and it seems there is, albeit a simple one. To start with, this very common fruit started out as a mutant. Yes, those lovely yellow, nutritious bananas started out as a mutant. One bit of info that I found is that around 1836 a mutant yellow banana showed up on a Jamaican plantain plantation that was determined to be a cross between a red and green banana. It was sweet and did not need to be cooked like plantains or other cooking bananas. This very intuitive and wise plantation owner started growing them. By the late 1800s, bananas were transported to the US and considered an exotic fruit. This fluke of nature has become so common that hardly a home is without one. It seems like nature is taking care of us. Interesting.
Naturally recipes were developed using bananas such as vanilla pudding with bananas in it. Sounds delicious. And how did vanilla wafers get in there? Vanilla wafers were marketed nationally in the early 1900's and it is thought that a cook added them to the banana pudding recipe and it was a hit. Nilla Wafers published the recipe on their box and a famous desert was born. Why southern? Well because they made them in the south. It could be just that simple. Southerners typically like sweets. Deserts that did not require a lot of cooking and were served cool in the heat of the summer were popular. Another factor could be that the ports the bananas were transported through were probably located in the south such as New Orleans and Biloxi and therefore bananas were more abundant, fresher and less expensive in the region. This is just an educated guess because there is not much info out there on this. But seems quite probable.
Back to my mom's banana pudding, that was my mom's version and this is my version. I will never use another Jello pudding box mix again. Sorry Jello! Flavored gelatins are OK if you really don't want to venture into pudding making. I got to say the pay off is huge for such a small amount of extra effort. For me, if I am eating desert it has to be worth the extra calories and instant pudding just doesn't cut it (I just didn't know any better when I was a kid! Nor did I care). There is just nothing quite like homemade pudding and it really makes banana pudding something truly special. I make mine with a vanilla bean and a little vanilla extract. Adding a vanilla bean to the milk, just adds a really nice well rounded vanilla flavor to the pudding. Using ripe bananas that are still firm and pouring the vanilla pudding over while it is still warm are key to success for this desert.
One thing about venturing into pudding making from scratch is that you have learned a cooking technique that empowers you to make other puddings, custards, curd and pastry creams for other deserts. Also once you are familiar and comfortable with the "making pudding" process, it can be almost as easy as box mixes and is definitely worth the trouble. Myself, I like simple processes with fresh, basic and good quality ingredients. I tend to shy away (almost completely avoid) mixes and previously prepared foods. Usually these shortcuts are just not worth it for me.
Here is the recipe I use and I dare you to try it just once.
In a heavy saucepan (at least 2.5 quart, I use my 5 quart sauce pan because of the increased surface area for thickening the sauce) place 2/3 cup of white sugar, 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and a pinch of salt. Mix with a whisk.
Add 2 cups of whole milk slowly to the mixture, mixing well. Cut a vanilla bean down the middle long wise and the and scrape the seeds out with the back of a knife. Add both seeds and pod. Add 2 tablespoons of sweet butter cut up.
Note: Whole milk is important for the consistency of the pudding and flavor. I have used reduced fat milk in the past when I didn't have whole milk. The flavor was still very good but the pudding was thinner. Also, if you want, you can replace the vanilla bean with an additional teaspoon of vanilla increasing the total amount to 1 1/2 teaspoons at the end of cooking the pudding.
Add 3 or 4 egg yolks to 1 cup of whole milk and mix thoroughly and add to saucepan. Stir til mixed.
Another note: If the eggs are extra large 3 will do so go by the size of your egg. If you are going to use a lower fat milk, use 4 egg yolks because this will definitely help thicken the pudding!
Note #3: If the heat is too high sometimes you may scramble your eggs in the sauce but that is usually done by the heat being too high and not stirring enough. If you have a couple of egg curds then straining the sauce is ok. If there are a lot of them then you have scrambled eggs in vanilla sauce and that is what your pudding will taste like. This has never happened to me with this recipe and I can usually screw something up good at least once. There are other stories of egg custards gone bad. . .
You will need 5 to 6 bananas, again depending on size. There is that size thing again. Size seems to matter a lot. The bananas need to be ripe but firm. You will also need a box of Vanilla Wafers. You will not use all of them, but none will go to waste since there seems to be a lot of happy takers! I use a 2 quart oval glass dish because I like that you can see the pudding. 2 1/2 quart is also a good size.
I have a hard time wasting leftovers so I usually make a meringue and place in on top of the crushed cookie layer. The crushed cookies helps with keeping the meringue where it is supposed to be and not shrinking. Also cooking the meringue on the still warm pudding helps with shrinkage and seepage. I will include my meringue recipe with the recipe below. It is super easy, just watch the meringue when you are baking it so it doesn't get too dark because the browning happens fast.
Classic Banana Pudding
2/3 cup of white sugar
3 tablespoons of cornstarch
pinch of salt
3 cups of whole milk
3 or 4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon of good vanilla extract
5 to 6 ripe but firm bananas
1 box vanilla wafers
Place the sugar, cornstarch and salt in 2 1/2 quart saucepan and whisk together until blended. Whisk in 2 cups of the milk. Add the egg yolks to the remaining cup of milk and mix well and add to the saucepan. Put in the butter pieces. Cut the vanilla bean in half long wise, scrape the seeds out with the back of a knife and place the pod and seeds in the milk mixture.
On medium heat, stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce to heat to maintain the simmer and keep stirring for about 2 minutes until it has thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Add the vanilla extract. Place plastic wrap on top of the pudding mixture to keep a skin from forming.
While the pudding is still warm, start preparing the pudding by putting vanilla wafer in a single layer in the bottom and sides of a 2 to 2 1/2 quart casserole dish. Slice half the bananas and place on top of the wafers in a layer. Pour half the warm pudding over this layer and build another layer with the remaining wafers, bananas, and pudding.
Crush up a few of the wafers and sprinkle them on top of the pudding. You can stop here, chill and serve with fresh whipped cream or you can make a meringue with the leftover egg whites while the pudding is still warm. Here is the recipe for the meringue.
Note: If you choose not to use a vanilla bean, increase the vanilla extract to 1 1/2 teaspoons. It happens sometimes.
Baked Meringue (this will be more than you need, 1/2 is fine like I did, but not as tall fluffy as it could be, your call)
4 egg whites, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of vanilla (optional)
1 cup of superfine sugar
Place egg whites, cream of tartar, vanilla in a mixing bowl. With whisk attachment, slowly bring mixture up to high speed and begin to slowly add your sugar (either pour slowly or a tablespoon at a time) until the meringues hold a stiff peak and are shiny.
To bake the meringue on the pudding: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spread the meringue on your pudding all the way to the edges of your dish leaving no pudding showing. Give it some swirls and peaks for those delicious browned bits of meringue. This should take about 5 minutes, keep an eye on it. Cool for about 30 minutes on counter, then chill in the fridge for a couple of hours.
Here is my kitchen companion and this is what he was doing while I was cooking. He always makes me feel as if I am working awfully hard and need to learn how to relax with total abandon. It is probably very therapeutic as long as no one is looking!