Ah, August. The last solid month of summer, replete with steamy mornings, stormy afternoons, and, in the blissfully dehumidified evening, a pleasing show of crackling cicadas, twinkling fireflies, and playfully swooping bats.
At least that’s how August was in the Piedmont region of South Carolina where I grew up. This month was as likely a time as any to find my family languidly sampling thick spoonfuls of banana pudding from cold bowls in our laps as we sat on the back porch of our rural home to take in the evening.
Banana pudding is one of the South’s calling cards. If you are not favored enough to have been born south of the Mason-Dixon, you are still likely to have enjoyed the pleasures of the creamy dessert, perhaps after a plate of pulled pork and coleslaw (recommended: S.C. and N.C.-style, respectively). On the most basic level, banana pudding is a combination of four elements: pudding, bananas, vanilla wafers, and some kind of topping (often whipped cream or meringue). It’s a treat that even a Yankee can enjoy.
It’s also patient with a cook’s idiosyncrasies. While the most common version across the South is made from Jell-O brand boxed pudding, Nilla Wafers, and Cool Whip—the South holds onto 1950s packaged goods as tightly as Civil War-era grudges—many a Maw Maw has made the pudding from scratch or whipped up a stiff meringue by hand. Heck, someone has probably even baked her own cookies. The point is you can go as DIY as you like with essential elements, just so long as they’re all present in the end.
After testing a number of recipes, I encourage leaving the Jell-O mix behind. The banana pudding below is a mix of classic comfort and contemporary chic. We will make our own pudding (using a recipe adapted from Alton Brown), enhancing its natural fruit hospitality with a welcoming sip of banana liqueur. The Nilla Wafers stay (DO NOT be tempted by carpetbaggers from Whole Foods or the like—they are crude imitations). And, instead of whipped topping or a gaudy-yet-fickle meringue, we will top our luscious pudding with a gorgeously flecked vanilla bean mousse. To gild the lily, stud the whole damn thing with yet more cookie goodness.
The marriage of textures—light, creamy pudding and al dente wafers—that is crucial to a good banana pudding is preserved, especially if you serve it on the same day you make it. But our flavors will put the average churchyard social offering to shame.
Banana Pudding With Vanilla-Bean Mousse
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Time: 3 to 4 hours, partially unattended
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 5 or 6 small slices
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon crème de bananes (banana liqueur)
3 large or 4 medium ripe bananas, halved lengthwise and cut into ¼-inch slices
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon caster or superfine sugar
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean
One 12-ounce box Nilla Wafers
1. Put the sugar and salt in a medium saucepan. Sift in the cornstarch, and whisk the mixture to reduce lumps. Add 2 of the eggs plus 1 egg yolk (reserve the white), and whisk vigorously until the mixture is well combined and light yellow, about 2 minutes. Add the milk and whisk to combine.
2. Put the saucepan over medium-low heat, and cook, stirring gently and constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to thicken, 15 to 18 minutes. (This will happen at around 175°F; use a candy thermometer if you have one.) Once the pudding has thickened, immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the cold butter, one slice at a time, until the mixture is glossy and smooth. Add the vanilla extract and banana liqueur and whisk to combine.
3. Transfer the pudding to a medium bowl and cool it to room temperature, then cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled through, about 2 hours. Once the pudding has chilled, fold in the banana slices.
4. Whip 1 cup of the heavy cream with the whisk attachment of a stand mixer (or a handheld electric mixer) until frothy. Add 1 tablespoon of the caster sugar, and continue whipping until the cream is fluffy and forms soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped cream into the pudding until just combined. Refrigerate the pudding while you make the vanilla-bean mousse.
5. Whip the remaining 1 cup heavy cream with the whisk attachment of a stand mixer (or a handheld electric mixer) until frothy. Add ¼ cup of the caster sugar and the vanilla-bean seeds, and continue whipping until the cream is fluffy and forms soft peaks. In another medium bowl, whisk 2 egg whites until foamy, add the remaining ¼ cup caster sugar, and continue beating until stiff peaks form. (Discard the remaining egg yolk, or save it for another use.) Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the whipped cream just until combined, trying to preserve as much volume as possible. (You can refrigerate the mousse for up to 2 hours before assembling the final dish.)
6. Put about ⅔ of the pudding in a large glass dish. Top with an even layer of 25 to 30 Nilla Wafers, then add the remaining pudding. Spread the mousse evenly over the pudding. Roughly crumble the remaining Nilla Wafers over the mousse. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and serve. The pudding’s texture will be best if served on the day of preparation, but refrigerating overnight is fine. (Due to the raw eggs in the mousse, do not keep leftovers longer than two days.)