Hello, Summer

4-Ingredient Banana Icebox Cake to Make You Forget Your Oven & Stove

June 26, 2018

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, wow factor. Psst: We don't count salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. This time we're making an icebox cake that thinks it's banana pudding. (Shhh, don't tell!)

I always assumed banana pudding was banana pudding—like, banana-flavored pudding—but it’s not. It’s actually vanilla pudding, layered with vanilla wafers, and banana slices.

Or, as David Rosengarten, writing for The Splendid Table puts it, “a totally unfashionable vestige of the old South.” His friend’s family’s recipe is as classic as it gets: Nabisco wafers, Jell-O pudding, and homemade meringue, which you toast in the oven until the top turns the color of a camp-fired marshmallow.

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Rosengarten lauds its “amazingly high pleasure-to-work ratio.” But I wanted to up the pleasure and drop the work even more.

Photo by Rocky Luten

First, let’s not make meringue. Basically, meringue is two ingredients: egg whites and sugar. The egg whites become big and bouncy thanks to whisked-in air, and stable thanks to sugar. Which means another sweet ingredient in an already sweet situation.

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Top Comment:
“Yes but....Vanilla wafers, and many other boxed cookies today, taste so chemical to me. So, I'd want to use some kind of homemade cookie to do this. Love the idea otherwise. ”
— Vicky

I want something less cloying. And less laborious. You know, something simpler, that doesn’t need to be baked. So, while we’re at it, if we’re not turning on the oven, let’s not turn on the stove either. Let’s not make a pudding, boxed or homemade.

Enter, meringue’s effortlessly chic cousin: whipped cream. This can act as a stand-in for the meringue and the pudding—a Big Little Recipes win-win. Whipped cream brings all the creamy, billowy drama without the need for sugar to stabilize it.. We just need a little something-something to make it rich and pudding-y.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Like malted milk powder. Serious Eats’ Stella Parks calls this “the umami bomb of desserts”. Most commonly, it sends milkshakes over the top. But I love incorporating it into frostings and cakes and blondies, too.

Ingredients, you wonder? Mostly wheat flour and malted barley extracts, plus milk powder and salt. That malted barley (kisses fingertips) gives our whipped cream an undeniable confidence, plus a glowing tan, like it just got back from a day at the beach.

Now, where to stack all this gorgeousness? Banana puddings can be layered anywhere you please. Sometimes it’s a casserole dish, which can be slid under the broiler. Other times, it’s a big trifle bowl, to show off in front of guests.

Photo by Rocky Luten

We’re taking another route entirely: a loaf pan. Not because this will be baked, but because it’ll be icebox-ified. If you’ve been here before—I thought I recognized you!—you know that we looove icebox cakes. They ask so little and give so much, especially in these sunny, sweaty months.

All you have to do is line the loaf pan with plastic, layer the wafers, banana slices, and malted cream up, up, and away, and chill for half a day, or a few days. Whatever works with your sched. Then slice into extra-thick slabs and tuck in.

Everyone will assume it’s banana pudding—wait, isn’t it?—but now, it’s neither banana-flavored, nor pudding at all. What’s in a name anyway, right?

Have you ever made banana pudding or an icebox cake before? Tell us about it in the comments.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Chiara Pepe
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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Chiara P. July 13, 2018
I cannot find powdered milk easily in Italy, can I use fresh milk instead? Thank you!
Emma L. July 13, 2018
Hi Chiara! Malted milk powdered is actually different than powdered milk. It's more for flavoring than anything else, so I wouldn't add fresh milk, which would just dilute the cream's fat content and hinder it from whipping properly. Wondering: What are some other flavorings that you love? This is a flexible recipe, so there's a lot of room to play around. You could mix in espresso powder and confectioners' sugar. Or cocoa powder and confectioners' sugar. Or even a nut/seed butter like tahini. All to taste! I'd start with a couple tablespoons or so, depending on the ingredient, and add bit by bit.
witloof July 7, 2018
Love this idea and am intrigued by the idea of of using malted milk powder, which I adore. I would make this with savoiardi instead of the vanilla wafers.
Hoda E. July 3, 2018
No added sugar to the cream? Is it sweet enough?
Emma L. July 5, 2018
To my taste, yes—since both the wafers and bananas are quite sweet. But after you whip the cream, sample a little with a wafer and banana slice, and see what you think. If you do want the cream sweeter, I'd recommend using powdered sugar instead of granulated, which will dissolve better.
jodyrah July 1, 2018
Skip the malt powder. Use dulce de leche instead. (Try not to eat it all before you make the cake). Sub lady fingers dipped in espresso, coconut milk, whatever.
Elle July 2, 2018
Did you try that? How was it?
FrugalCat June 29, 2018
I hate bananas- so do you think it would work with mangoes or peaches? Those might be too juicy, how about pears?
Emma L. June 29, 2018
Hm! Maybe raspberries or blackberries, tossed with a little sugar, could be fun—they'd get sort of smashed and jammy.
Cathy June 28, 2018
Where do you get malted milk powder? I can't seem to find it at Whole Foods, Target or Safeway.
Emma L. June 28, 2018
Yeah, this ingredient can be hit or miss depending on the supermarket. I've found it at Harris Teeter and Shop Rite. If your local stores don't have, it's also available online: https://www.amazon.com/Carnation-Malted-Milk-Original-Ounce/dp/B01MCZGBCQ/ref=sr_1_6_a_it?ie=UTF8&qid=1530186982&sr=8-6&keywords=malted+milk+powder
Vicky June 27, 2018
Yes but....Vanilla wafers, and many other boxed cookies today, taste so chemical to me. So, I'd want to use some kind of homemade cookie to do this. Love the idea otherwise.
Maryam August 16, 2018
Back to Nature brand makes a good Vanilla Cookie that could be a good substitute here
Posie (. June 26, 2018
This is brilliant!
Emma L. June 26, 2018
Thanks, Posie!
Leigh June 26, 2018
My husband is lactose intolerant. Is there a substitute for the heavy whipping cream?
Emma L. June 26, 2018
Hi Leigh, I haven't tried dairy-free alternatives with this particular recipe, but I know that coconut cream whips up beautifully. You can buy it in small cans. Or buy canned coconut milk, chill in the fridge, and scrape the cream that rises to the top. I bet that would be really lovely with the bananas. If you give it a go, let me know how it turns out!
Leigh June 26, 2018
Will do and thank you.
Cheryl M. June 29, 2018
Cool Whip works!!