Banana pudding is North Carolina’s most iconic dessert. Unfortunately of us Carolina stylists it’s also one of the world’s dullest looking dessert. It also happens to be the very best way you can end a hog picking meal. When she’s at her best it’s warm vanilla pudding, flecked with vanilla seeds, coating slices of banana and vanilla wafers topped with a fluffy meringue.
‘Nana puddin’ suffers due to it’s simplicity. Desserts which are simple are often victims to indifference. Take for example strudels, flaky rolled pastries found in Germany & Austria. There’s nothing fancy about them. They’re basically thin dough wrapping a fruit filling served with side of whipped cream. But when done right, strudels possess a dignity unrivaled by any confection in the world. Too bad cuz most of them suck. Even when I was traveling in Vienna, the strudels weren’t just bad, they were awful. Most looked like soggy rags and had a texture that came pretty close to their aesthetics.
The same goes for the humble banana pudding down in tarheel country. Now I haven’t had any that tasted bad in my travels. But many of them came with shock that someone who have the audacity to charge me money for what was basically instant pudding mix.
Even in the authoritative North Carolina BBQ book Holy Smoke, out of like 5 generations old recipes for banana pudding only one didn’t require an instant mix. Even the legendary Mama Dip uses a packaged mix!
Now I’m not one of those folk who believe that you need to make everything from scratch. I think people making their own in-house ketchup just got too much time on their hands. But for something that’s so stupidly simple it seems absurdly lazy to just use a prepacked mix. What’s even dumber is that this crap is actually quoted as part of people’s “secret family recipe”. That’s equivalent to me holding with pride that my grandma’s legendary lasagna was made with Prego pasta sauce.
The second problem we encounter is the meringue itself. Many people don’t even bother with the meringue – appalling. Some folk actually substitute the meringue for whipping cream/whipped “topping”. The latter being just as sacrilegious as substituting Coors Light for the wine at a Catholic Mass.
Along with serving the dish warm, the meringue is what makes banana pudding a distinctly Southern dessert. To either omit or substitute it we might as well call it Yankee Pudding. In the war of custards the 1865 white flag is waved every time this humble dessert is served either naked or with whipped cream.
I wouldn’t go as far as Alton Brown and make the vanilla wafers (recipe below). His rationale being that manufacturers have started cutting corners with the cookies themselves and have started making artificial “nilla wafers” which contain no vanilla. I think they’re just fine. And rather than put in that extra effort just spend a bit more money and use REAL VANILLA PODS in the custard itself. It will add both explosive flavor as well beautifully contrast the yellow.
The custard is essentially a traditional Creme Patissierie. Making your own custard is slower than the box mix BUT you get jazz her up a lot more. By boiling the milk with the scrapped vanilla pods you get a deeper layer of flavor that you simply can’t do with the mix. You can cheeky with the custard and add either a rum-based banana liqueur like BOLS or just your favorite rum. Rum trading being very historically significant in Southern BBQ history as well.
For the meringue I substituted the traditional baked meringue for an Italian meringue. This gives you the added benefit of not having to pop the pudding into a stove to brown it. Italian meringues are made by beating hot syrups into egg whites which a pinch of constarch. They are silkier, more stable, freeze nicely, just all around more awesome. All it took was a few seconds with my trusty blow torch and we got the effect you see at the shot above.
In tray you see above I also added layers of peanut butter crumble over half the pudding. So half traditional half peanut butter. Peanut butter and banana being such perfect partners.
Banana pudding – Nilla wafers, Custard, Bananas, Meringue. Simple. Better to adorn a beautiful woman with the finest of lipsticks than to mar her face with the entire cheap makeup kit from Walgreens.
Alton Brown’s Vanilla Wafers
7 ounces all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon aluminum free baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
3 1/2 ounces vanilla sugar
1 large egg
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon whole milk
Position 1 oven rack in the top third of the oven and another in the bottom third. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside. Cream the butter and vanilla sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl after 1 minute. Add the egg and incorporate on medium speed for 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl. Add the vanilla extract and milk and blend on low speed for 15 seconds. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed just to incorporate. Chill the batter in the refrigerator for at least 10 minutes before scooping.
Scoop the batter in teaspoon-sized balls and arrange them on 2 parchment paper-lined half sheet pans, approximately 35 cookies per pan. Use the heel of your hand to slightly flatten each ball. Bake, 2 pans at a time, rotating the pans halfway through the baking, until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pans to a cooling rack to cool completely before removing the cookies from the pan.