Whether you use whip or meringue, the proof is in the pudding
Although most people think of banana pudding as a Southern staple, its origin is closely tied to the English trifle, a layered concoction of fruit, custard and sponge cake, ladyfingers or wafers.
After the Civil War, modern steamships made bananas from Panama easily accessible through such Southern ports as Galveston and New Orleans. That made bananas a plentiful and low-cost addition to most households.
In its original incarnation, the 1877 tall ship Elissa — at the Texas Seaport Museum at Pier 21 in Galveston — brought bananas to the island. In 1898, Nabisco began producing Vanilla Wafers to replace sponge cake and ladyfingers. (Nabisco renamed them Nilla Wafers in 1967). Nabisco’s marketing genius of putting the banana pudding recipe on Vanilla Wafer boxes made it a very popular dessert.
Banana pudding’s popularity in the South soared because you could make large batches of the dessert, which traveled well and didn’t need refrigeration. Unlike many iconic Southern dishes, there’s no roiling debate about the correct method of making it. Meringue, whipped cream, cool whip — whatever you choose won’t likely incite vitriol.
As an old-time food critic said, “I don’t care how it’s made, just save me some.”
GRANDMOTHER’S BANANA PUDDING
For the custard:
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 egg yolks (save the whites for the meringue)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Dash of salt
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the filling:
4 ripe bananas sliced
For the meringue:
3 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup granulated sugar
Mix sugar, egg yolks, flour and salt. Add milk and mix again. Heat on stove, over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until custard sticks to sides of pan, about 10 minutes. Add vanilla extract. After mixture has thickened, let cool.
To assemble, put a few drops of custard in the bottom of a two-quart dish and spread around. Layer vanilla wafers on the bottom of the dish, top with 2 sliced bananas and ½ of the custard. Repeat the layers and place vanilla wafers around the sides.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites, ½ cup sugar and cream of tartar until it forms stiff peaks. Spread on pudding and bake at 450 F for 4 minutes, until browned. If your dish isn’t oven-proof, use a kitchen torch to brown the meringue. Serve warm or chilled.
Phil Newton is a Galveston baker/cook. He’s the owner/operator of Stiglich Corner with partner Cindy Roberts.