My great-grandmother, Fanny (otherwise known as Big Mama), was a formidable woman. She was opinionated, kind of cranky, and blunt to the point of being brutal. She was also extremely loving (I remember her bursting out of her tiny house in Trinity, Texas, when we would come to visit; she’d smother us in kisses and pull us close for tight, tight hugs), a gifted quilter (I still mourn the loss of the quilting frame that hung above us in her living room), and a brilliant cook. In fact, both of my great-grandmothers were fantastic Southern cooks — my Granny made fried chicken that none of us has been able to replicate. Her secret? “You’ve got to hold your mouth right while you do it.”
I remember rambling through Big Mama’s house when I was a girl, exploring the big front bedroom no one ever slept in (except for napping children) and its huge iron beds with the knobbly, old-fashioned white coverlets; the old dresser with the pitcher and bowl on top; the old family photos of people long dead. I used to love to go in the washroom at the back of the house and play with the hand-cranked clothes wringer, even though I wasn’t supposed to.
But the thing I associate most with Big Mama is her banana pudding. I would be bitterly disappointed when we went to her house and she didn’t have it at the ready. I have tried to make banana pudding in the past, where you put a layer of Nilla wafers in a bowl with banana slices, then pour in instant pudding, but it’s just not the same. First, you’ve got to have really, really, really ripe bananas. And you can’t skimp on the Nilla wafers. And you simply CANNOT use instant pudding. There’s an alchemy there that depends on the bananas infusing the custard with their flavor and on the Nilla wafers absorbing the custard as it cools. And the longer the pudding sits, the mushier and more pudding-y the cookies get. Not that the pudding lasts that long.
Big Mama left us long ago, and I wasn’t really much of a cook back then, so I didn’t have her recipe to work with. So, I scoured the internet, looking for scratch banana pudding recipes that looked like they might approximate the beloved dessert of my youth. I must say that I was shocked to learn that some people eat banana pudding with MERINGUE on top? Uh, no. Just no. And that Chick-fil-A makes a banana pudding milkshake (22 POINTS!) BLASPHEMY.
I whipped this together in about 15 minutes last night, including slicing bananas and feeding extras to my tiniest monkey. I waited until this morning to tuck in — it was a long, arduous wait, believe me.
Big Mama’s Banana Pudding
1/2 c sugar
1/3 c flour
3 egg yolks
2 cups 2% milk (you can use whole if you want something a bit richer)
1 box Nilla wafers
1/2 t vanilla extract
Build three layers each of Nilla wafers and sliced bananas in the bottom of a large bowl, starting with the cookies first and alternating the two. Pour all of the remaining ingredients into a double boiler or saucepan (I used my small Le Creuset stoneware pot) and cook it over medium low, stirring constantly, until it thickens, 10-15 minutes. (And by “thickens,” I mean, “all of a sudden is the consistency of pudding, so pay attention to what you’re doing.”) Once the custard has come together, pour it over the bananas and cookies and smooth the top. Give it a good, gentle shake to ensure that the custard seeps into all of the nooks and crannies. Take about a dozen Nilla wafers and crush them over the top of the pudding. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill overnight.
Hat tip to Southern Plate.