My friend Alexandra is a self-trained banana pudding aficionado. If banana pudding's on the menu, she's guaranteed to order it -- and to have strong opinions about it afterwards. In case you're unfamiliar with this Southern classic, it's basically a trifle made with pudding, vanilla wafers and bananas. Like most traditional dishes, there are as many versions of banana pudding as there are cooks who make it.
A few years ago, Alexandra was kind enough to let me tag along on her quest to find the best banana pudding in New York City. We went on a series of field trips to various soul food joints in boroughs near and far, seeking out the puddings that had come the most highly recommended -- from friends, friends-of-friends, and total strangers on the web.
This rigorous bout of research was followed by a blind banana pudding taste test that Alexandra hosted at her apartment. We ran around the city, gathering samples of our top contenders, and then seven or eight of us sat in a circle in her living room, spoon in one hand, typed questionnaire in the other, assessing the taste, texture and overall appeal of each pudding.
While I don't remember the final consensus, I do clearly recall my own favorite. I'm not a huge fan of their cupcakes, which are too sweet for my taste, but Magnolia Bakery has won a permanent place in my heart with their banana pudding. Less dense than most renditions, their pudding is lightened with fresh whipped cream and studded with healthy chunks of banana. Some prefer a smooth pudding (ahem, lizb, I'm really hoping we can still be friends after this post), but I like my banana pudding to have little pieces of fruit, to remind me that I'm eating something made from scratch rather than from a box.
Last week, spurred on by our pudding contest, I attempted to recreate Magnolia's light, not-too-sweet banana pudding, using this simple vanilla pudding recipe from Martha Stewart as my jumping-off point. And I think I came pretty close to the original. Of course, the real test will come when I make it for Alexandra.
Adapted from Magnolia Bakery and Martha Stewart
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Pinch kosher salt
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 50 Nilla wafers (please, no substitutes here!)
- 6 large, ripe bananas
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, plus more for garnish