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Know Your Sweets: Banana Pudding
Banana Pudding (aliases: Nana's Pudding, Wafer Pudding) is an unassuming, delicious Southern staple featuring layers of rich, custardy vanilla pudding, crunchy vanilla wafers, and slices of banana. For special occasions, the dessert is often dressed up with a whipped cream or meringue topping.
Trifle, Tiramisu, Tipsy Cake, Zuppa Inglese, Banana Cream Pie
Key Ingredient Spotlight: Pudding
Part of the beauty of banana pudding is its simplicity: there's very little fuss to it. Each element of the dessert is delicious on its own so when combined, it's a geological excursion of sweetness. The key to taking banana pudding from church picnic favorite to a dessert worthy of curtsies is all in the preparation of the pudding. While it may be tempting, don't you dare go for the boxed stuff: the thick, supple nature of homemade pudding is the foundation on which the dessert rests and is the lynchpin to ensuring each of the ingredients mesh together properly. The box stuff simply just doesn't cut the mustard.
While some attempt to double up on banana flavor by using banana extract in the pudding, any purist will tell you this is unnecessary, and only leaves the dessert with an superfluously fake flavor (read: like a banana Laffy Taffy). A classic vanilla custard is the preferred variation.
Key City: New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans' role as a culinary gateway cannot be overstated, particularly when it comes to introducing exotic fruits to the United States. During the era when Standard Fruit imported through New Orleans, it was rumored that so many bananas were being shipped through the port that tourists would line up to watch them be unloaded.
The biggest debate over banana pudding stems from whether to pour the custard over the top of a vanilla wafer and banana slice stack or form sweet sedentary layers of pudding, banana, wafer, and—if you're feeling frisky—meringue. While the Napoleon-esque version appears to be the more popular south of the Mason Dixon line, the poured custard variety regularly pops up in recipes books from other parts of the country.
The grandfather of banana pudding is most likely the English trifle, which has a similar combination of pudding, fruit, and cookie spread into delicate layers. Bananas were a rare sight prior to the Civil War, when cargo carriers from the Caribbean began shipping this favorite fruit to the country through ports in New Orleans and Charleston. The banana's ties to the South are in large part due to these port cities as a point-of-entry. The fruit was quickly integrated into traditional custards and meringues, paving the way for the banana pudding we know and love today.
The first popularized versions of the dessert were recorded in cookbooks which came out back-to-back in 1902 (Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book by Sarah Tyson Rorer) and 1903 (The Kentucky Receipt Book by Mary Harris Frazer). While incredibly similar in their preparation methods, neither of these versions contained wafers, despite the fact that Nabisco began producing their flagship sugar wafer in 1901. The addition of vanilla wafers became the final piece to the banana pudding puzzle in the 1960s. The rapid expansion of highway systems across the South allowed for greater mobility of produce like bananas, and Nabisco's marketing of Vanilla Wafers created the perfect storm for banana pudding's reign.
The National Banana Pudding Festival—which has a precious logo featuring two bananas dancing in overalls—happens each year in Centerville, Tennessee. The two-day celebration features a pudding cook-off, pudding auction, Miss Banana Pudding pageant, and pudding path where festival goers can walk a delicious trail sampling different varieties of the dessert.
Want to try Banana Pudding at home? Get the recipe here.
About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.