While many theories exists as to what makes banana pudding Southern at all, my favorite is this: Banana pudding is cool comfort food for a crowd. You likely have most of the ingredients on hand, it hardly heats up the kitchen, and a big batch takes just as little time as a small batch.
A Bit of Banana History
Although banana pudding has become synonymous with the American South, this ubiquitous dessert may have actually been born in New England just after the Civil War. Bananas were still a luxury at the time, so it took more than a half century for the banana pudding to become a Southern icon. Food historians believe that banana pudding moved south after the nationwide adoption of home refrigeration, when bananas became more readily available (and cheaper), and the invention (and heavy marketing of) the mass-market vanilla wafer in the 1940s.
Vanilla Not Banana Pudding
Banana pudding starts with a rich vanilla pudding. That's right — there are no actual bananas in the pudding. In its infancy, banana pudding was just like any other good English trifle: it used leftover bits and pieces of this and that. In fact, many of the early banana pudding recipes call for cake and other fruit in place of the vanilla wafer cookies and bananas.
Vanilla pudding is easy to make on the stovetop with a few tips.
- Whisk the cornstarch and sugar together to break up clumps in the cornstarch.
- Keep the heat low.
- Whisk continuously and to further avoid lumps.
Wondering About the Difference? Pudding vs Custard: What's Your Pleasure?
About Those Bananas
Contrary to many recipes suggestion, banana pudding is not a good use for overripe bananas. Bananas play a contrasting role in the finished dish; they are the chewy element to counter the creamy pudding and crunchy wafers, so don't go with mushy bananas. Using bananas that are slightly underripe will also help the pudding last longer in the refrigerator.
Building a banana pudding is a simple task of layering vanilla wafer cookies with the bananas and cold custard. The key, though, is to have the custard made and cooled in advance, as warm custard would cook the bananas and turn the wafers to complete mush. Toss the bananas with a little lemon juice after slicing to prevent browning, then build the trifle and refrigerate before whipping the whipped cream top.
How To Make Banana Pudding
What You Need
For the pudding:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the trifle:
3 slightly underripe bananas
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 (12-ounce) box Vanilla Wafers
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Stand mixer or hand mixer
9x13-inch baking dish
Measuring cups and spoons
1 1/2- to 2-quart baking dish
- Whisk together sugar and cornstarch: Place the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisk together, breaking up any clumps in the sugar or starch.
- Make an egg slurry: Add the eggs and egg yolk to the sugar mixture and whisk until completely smooth. Whisk in the milk and cream.
- Cook until thickened: Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and bubbles around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the vanilla extract.
- Cover and cool: Pour the custard into a 9x13-inch baking dish and spread into an even layer. Place a layer of plastic wrap directly onto the custard and chill for at least 2 hours before building the trifle.
- Prepare the bananas: Peel the bananas and slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place in a medium bowl, add the lemon juice, and toss to combine.
- Build the trifle: In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart high-sided dish, spread 1 cup of the custard. Top with a layer of 10 to 12 vanilla wafers, then top with 1/3 of the bananas. Repeat with layering the custard, wafers, and bananas to create 3 layers of each. Refrigerate while whipping the cream.
- Whip the cream: Whip the cream in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer on medium speed until foamy. While whisking, add the sugar gradually, and continue whipping to stiff peaks.
- Top and serve: Top the banana pudding with the whipped cream and serve.
- Make ahead: The vanilla pudding can be made up to 3 days in advance.
- Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.