Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Famous Ways of Making Banana Pudding, and the Winner Swept Them All

published Nov 18, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

In the world of desserts, banana pudding earns the congeniality award. It’s a friendly sort of recipe — good to the cook, because it’s a fantastic make-ahead option that’s always well-received, and great for those who eat it, because it’s simply delicious. Banana pudding is wonderful any time of year, too — just as welcome at a backyard barbecue as it is on a holiday sideboard — and it can feel homey or fancy depending on the presentation. 

As a lifelong Southerner (I grew up in Mississippi and now live in Birmingham, Alabama), I have enjoyed my fair share of banana pudding. I’ve typically had it as a cold layered dessert made with vanilla custard, sliced bananas, and Nilla Wafers that soften in the same way that graham crackers or cookies do in an icebox cake. Recently, I even had my world rocked by a warm version (amazing!) made with crisp pecan sandies (also incredible!) at a local restaurant. 

But what makes for a winning banana pudding recipe? To find out, I pitted four popular recipes against each other in a side-by-side test. I was surprised by how different each recipe tasted, despite being composed of basically the same elements: bananas, vanilla custard, cookies, and a creamy topping. The winner was one I’ll be dreaming about (and making) a lot!

Quick Overview

So, What’s the Best Banana Pudding Recipe?

Rodney Scott’s banana pudding is the very best recipe we tested. The rich and creamy custard is worth making from scratch, and the store-bought wafer cookies makes it relatively easy to whip together.

Meet Our 4 Banana Pudding Contenders

The banana pudding recipes I tested do stick, roughly, to the same formula — fresh bananas, vanilla custard, creamy component, and cookies — but there’s a lot of variation among them. Two of the recipes top the dessert with meringue — one an airy French meringue, and the other a dense Swiss meringue — while another uses sweetened whipped cream as the topping. Three use a homemade vanilla custard, while one uses a supermarket shortcut. Three of the four stick with classic vanilla wafer cookies, while one uses a homemade cookie. Each recipe was unique and surprisingly different from the rest.

Carla Hall: The recipe from this popular chef begins with homemade vanilla shortbread in place of packaged vanilla wafers. It also blends banana (as in, in a blender) for a fruit-infused pastry cream that also incorporates whipped heavy cream and chopped bananas. Finally, it layers the cookies and pastry cream in a trifle dish and tops everything off with a banana-flavored Swiss meringue.

Dolly Parton: The beloved singer shares her mother’s recipe, a simple old-fashioned take that layers homemade vanilla custard with store-bought vanilla wafers and sliced bananas. The finishing touch is a basic French meringue that’s toasted by placing the banana pudding in the oven long enough to give the meringue some color.

Rodney Scott: This recipe, shared by the acclaimed southeastern barbecue chain, is similar to Parton’s recipe, in that it uses a classic vanilla custard, sliced bananas, and store-bought vanilla wafers, but instead of meringue it tops the pudding with chantilly cream (sweetened, vanilla-flavored whipped cream).

Magnolia Bakery: Promising to be the easiest recipe of the bunch, this best-seller uses just six ingredients (one of which is water), leans on instant pudding mix, and requires no cooking. It’s worth noting also that many popular blogs base their recipes on Magnolia Bakery’s famous banana pudding. 

How I Tested the Banana Pudding Recipes

  • I made all of the banana pudding recipes on the same day. I prepared and assembled all of the recipes in the morning, then chilled them for several hours. (One exception: I made the shortbread cookie dough for Carla Hall’s recipe the night before, but I baked the cookies the next morning.) I was able to evaluate all of the recipes side-by-side.
  • I used the same brand of common ingredients. Aside from making sure to use the same brand of cream, eggs, milk, butter, vanilla, and sugar, I most notably used Nabisco Nilla Wafers for the three recipes that called for vanilla wafer cookies.
  • I tasted each banana pudding twice. I tried each recipe a few hours after assembling and chilling, lining them up side-by-side for comparison. I also tried them again the next morning.

Why You Should Trust Me as a Tester

In my 25 years in food media (20 as a magazine editor, 5 as a freelance recipe developer and food writer), I have written, tested, and developed literally thousands of recipes. I know how to evaluate a recipe for flavor, texture, and clarity and success (or failure) of the process.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

1.  The Easiest Version: Magnolia Bakery’s Magnolia’s Famous Banana Pudding 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

2.  The Ambitious Cooking Project: Carla Hall’s Banana Pudding with Vanilla Shortbread

Overall rating: 7.5/10
Get the recipe: Banana Pudding with Vanilla Shortbread

Set aside some time if you plan to make this recipe, and make room in your sink for lots of dirty dishes. You’ll start by making vanilla shortbread cookies, a step that you can do well in advance.

As for the custard, first, you’ll whisk together sugar, cornstarch, salt, and egg yolks in a bowl. Next, you’ll blend mashed bananas with milk and half-and-half in a blender. At that point, you’ll heat the blended mixture, mix it with the cornstarch mixture, and cook the combo until you get a thick pastry cream. As that mixture chills, you’ll make a Swiss meringue by whisking egg whites and sugar in a double boiler until it reaches 165°F, then whipping the whites to stiff peaks. You’ll then flavor the meringue with vinegar, vanilla extract, and banana extract. Next, you’ll whip some heavy cream to soft peaks and fold it into the pastry cream along with chopped bananas. Then comes assembly — building layers of cookies and pastry cream in a trifle dish, then topping with the meringue. Finally, you’ll garnish with cookies and banana slices.

As you can probably tell, this recipe is a lot of work. It does turn out stunning, and it’s quite tasty. But I cannot get over the flavor of the banana extract in the meringue. It simply overwhelmed everything else and gave what would have otherwise been a lovely dessert an artificial aftertaste. The cookies are delicious and crisp, the custard is tasty and rich, and the meringue’s texture is dense and swoon-worthy. Although the flavor issue would be simple to adjust (I would either omit the banana extract or decrease the amount from 1/2 teaspoon to maybe 1/8), overall this recipe seems a little too labor-intensive.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

3. A Comforting, Old-Fashioned Take: Dolly Parton’s Mother’s Banana Pudding

Overall rating: 8.5/10
Get the recipe: Mother’s Banana Pudding

This recipe feels like a homey, unassuming classic. It begins with a homemade vanilla pudding that you make by combining sugar, flour, milk, egg yolks, and salt in a saucepan and cooking (stirring constantly) until thickened. At that point, you stir in half a stick of butter and a splash of vanilla extract. You allow the pudding to cool slightly, then layer vanilla wafers, sliced bananas, and pudding twice in a baking dish. 

Next, you’ll make a simple French meringue by beating egg whites, sugar, and vanilla to stiff peaks and then spread it atop the banana pudding. You’ll bake the mixture for about 15 minutes to brown and cook the meringue, then chill the finished banana pudding. 

I loved the vanilla custard, which was creamy and extra-rich, thanks to that butter. The vanilla wafers softened nicely after the mixture was chilled so that the dessert had a pleasing, almost homogenous texture; hearty pudding with softened (but not mushy) cookies and soft banana slices. The one issue I had with the dessert was the meringue, which shrunk a bit and seeped syrupy droplets on its surface. I know that this type of meringue is traditional for a lot of folks, but it felt far too airy and foamy for the wonderful dessert below, a textural miscue that was completely incongruous with the rich pudding. A denser Swiss or Italian meringue would have been much better. And if I make this again, that’s what I would use instead.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

4. The Most Balanced Recipe with an Emphasis on the Pudding: Rodney Scott’s Banana Pudding

Overall rating: 10/10
Get the recipe: Banana Pudding

As the recipe’s headnote states, Rodney Scott’s time-pressed mother sometimes leaned on instant pudding mix for her banana pudding. So when creating a banana pudding recipe for his barbecue restaurants, he asked for help from his friend Lisa Marie Donovan, famed pastry chef and author.

The recipe starts with a straightforward vanilla pudding made by whisking together sugar, flour, salt, egg yolks, a whole egg, and some cream; you then add hot milk and vanilla to temper this mixture and then cook it until thickened. As that mixture cools to room temperature, you’ll make a chantilly cream by beating together heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract until stiff peaks form. Assembly calls for a single layer of purchased vanilla wafers, all of the pudding, the sliced bananas, and the chantilly cream.

What you get when you layer the dessert this way is a thicker pudding zone between one layer of cookies and one layer of bananas — placing more emphasis on the deliciously smooth, rich, creamy custard. While Parton’s pudding is enriched with butter, this one is made richer with cream for a silkier effect. The lightly sweetened chantilly cream is a lovely finishing touch, making the dessert feel more balanced and less cloyingly sweet than some of the other versions. There’s a note at the end of the recipe explaining that this layering strategy is what they use at the restaurant, but you could add another layer of cookies and bananas if you’d like. To me, though, the way it is is perfect, rewarding you with a more pronounced pudding presence in every delicious bite.