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This homemade southern banana pudding is pure nostalgia with layers of homemade pudding, banana slices, vanilla wafers, and topped with my foolproof fluffy meringue that will NOT weep or deflate.
My soul is completely at peace with this homemade banana pudding recipe. Holidays are always full of comfort food, but the desserts of the south take no prisoners. Banana pudding included. It's a classic southern dessert that will always be on the table at Thanksgiving, alongside the sweet potato pie.
Now, there are two reasons why this is the best banana pudding recipe, in my honest southern opinion. The first, is the homemade vanilla pudding. We aren't just making a vanilla pudding for this, it's a banana pudding.
The base is a rich vanilla egg custard, but I add a banana flavor extract. To me, classic banana pudding just doesn't have enough banana flavor in it unless has a banana flavored pudding as well.
The second reason is my foolproof meringue. The real deal famous banana pudding from the south must have a meringue, but the classic recipe makes what we call the French meringue. Very easy, simple, with only two ingredients: egg whites and sugar.
The problem with that is that it holds no stability and has the common problem of weeping, or breaking down and oozing liquid. I break down why that happens and how we are avoiding that in this banana pudding later in this post.
What is Banana Pudding?
So the origins of banana pudding aren't in the South. It actually began around New England before the Civil War, when bananas were 'only found at the most fashionable fruit stores' in ports like New York City and New Orleans during the 1840's and '50s. After the war, at the beginning of the 1900's, the banana was being shipped all over the country but especially the south, which loved tropical fruits.
This OG banana pudding was a twist on the English trifle dessert. The first written recipe was in Massachusetts-based Good Housekeeping, layering sponge cake and fresh bananas in a pretty trifle dish, pouring a homemade chilled pudding mixture over top and then covering it all with whipped cream. A totally different dish from our modern southern banana pudding recipe.
This English-Trifle-style banana pudding took early 1900's cookbooks by storm with different variations of banana pudding showing up, including one with baked meringue as more homes gained ovens, and (unfortunately) that weird gelatin-mold craze hit banana puddings, but thankfully were not a winner.
Then came vanilla wafers, or Nilla Wafers.
In 1921, a Mrs. Laura Kerley of Illinois sent her recipe for banana pudding that included six bananas, homemade custard, and vanilla wafers into her local newspaper. Nabisco caught wind and ran with this use of their vanilla wafers, placing a banana pudding recipe on their boxes in the 1940's calling for baked meringue.
And the rest is marketing strategy history.
Speaking of which, after WW2 the southern identity of banana pudding took hold. And when you ask anyone they really don't seem to know the reason, journalists were simply touting it as a 'deep south treat'.
Either way, the south took banana pudding under its dessert wing. By the 1960s-80s, around 80% of references to banana pudding were of its southern flair!
How to Make Southern Banana Pudding
The thing that separates southern banana pudding from the rest is the fact that it is topped with meringue, not whipped topping, not sour cream, and not crumbled up cookies. You will get the side eye at the family reunion, trust me.
As I said earlier, I have two twists to my from scratch banana pudding, and I would say that these slight changes fixes a few things that can go wrong when making the classic recipe. So I (and many others) would say this right here is the best southern banana pudding recipe you'll find.
Also, because of these changes, this recipe can be both a baked or a no-bake banana pudding recipe! I told you it took care of all the banana pudding problems!
First you create the custard, or pudding. Whisk the dry ingredients together, add the eggs and milk, let thicken and then add the butter and flavoring. Cool it on the counter until it's not longer steaming hot, then chill for a few hours in the fridge covered with plastic wrap. This can be made a few days ahead, as can the meringue.
Speaking of which, that's the next thing to make. Because it is so stable, you can make this up to 2 days before serving. I go over the procedure below in 'making the meringue'.
Once the meringue is ready, you're ready to put the whole thing together. Get your serving bowl, preferably a trifle bowl (or mini trifle bowls for individual servings) or a 9-inch baking dish if you're going to bake it.
Place layers of bananas and nilla wafer, starting with the layer of nilla wafers (and if you love custard, add layers of custard as well instead of just on top of the many layers of bananas and wafers). Repeat layers until you've run out of something, whether that's bananas, wafers, or space.
Once at the top of your dish, cover the top of the pudding generously with all that meringue. I mean really pile it on nice and high. If you're baking your banana pudding, make sure to cover the dish from edge to edge like you would lemon meringue pie.
Then brown that meringue up real pretty. I use a culinary torch, which is completely affordable and safe, and gently torch it up.
If you torch it, it's ready to serve immediately! If you bake it, you'll need to let it cool (or chill for hours, if you like it served cold).
Bananas. You want ones that are at that perfectly yellow stage, with maybe just a hint of brown. It's still perfectly firm. So all those nicely ripe bananas? Save those for some tasty chocolate chip banana bread.
First you have to make the custard, or pudding. Usually this is a vanilla pudding, but I found that the banana pudding is just lacking that banana oomph you'd expect from it with vanilla pudding. So instead, I make an easy homemade banana cream custard that can be made up to 3 days in advance.
It only requires banana cream extract as another ingredient so don't fret, it's not something crazy or difficult. Remember, you can use instant pudding mix in a pinch. I won't judge.
Banana Cream Pudding
Granulated White Sugar.
Fine Sea Salt. Kosher salt is just a bit too big (in my opinion) to dissolve well before the cornstarch works it's gellifying magic on the pudding, while table salt is very strong in its salty flavor. Fine sea salt took care of this problem for me. It's easily found at your local big box store where you'd find the other salts.
Whole Milk. Make sure you use cold milk, it reacts with the cornstarch better.
Large Egg Yolks. We're using those egg whites for the meringue so save them!
Banana Extract. This is what really makes the banana pudding, in my opinion. The sliced bananas themselves don't have a powerful flavor, so the banana flavor isn't giving us what we need. That's where banana cream pudding comes in. I also know that Jell-O has a Banana Cream pudding they created with southern banana pudding in mind, in case of emergencies.
For My Foolproof Meringue
Egg Whites. Use cold egg whites for this, they whip up the best. Fresh from the fridge, not frozen!
Cream of Tartar. Definitely optional, but this helps those egg whites really become foolproof. You could also squeeze in a little lemon juice. It's the acidity that's needed.
White Granulated Sugar. To make our sugar syrup.
Water. Also for the syrup.
A Splash of Vanilla Extract.
Making the Meringue
Next, you need to make the meringue. It should NOT be difficult, even if it's the 'most difficult' part of the recipe. The traditional meringue is one called a French Meringue. It's very simple, made with only egg whites and sugar, ready when stiff but I hate it for banana pudding. French meringue is stable only when it's cooked through completely, like in a pavlova.
So for a classic banana pudding, where the meringue is not cooked low and slow until crisp and cooked through but is still soft, the meringue will fall apart after a while and cannot be made ahead.
But mine is foolproof, no weeping. Why? Because it's not French meringue, it's Italian meringue. What's the difference?
There are three ways to make meringue, the simple French, the double-boiler-whisking Swiss, and the most stable of the three, the hot sugar syrup Italian. I used Italian meringue to make the frosting on chocolate cupcakes for my son's fifth birthday, and it was my first time ever making it. But it was so easy that I knew I needed to use it for my banana puddings.
Italian meringue is still made with egg whites and sugar, but we are cooking the sugar with water to turn it into a hot syrup (that's why we need the candy thermometer), then beating the egg whites with the hot syrup until it's thick, glossy, fluffy. Like I said, this is really easy so long as you have the candy thermometer and a stand mixer because the meringue will be hot as it beats on high for about 7-10 minutes. So that metal stand mixer bowl? It comes in clutch!
Because of the hot syrup, Italian meringue is basically already cooked through for use. You don't need to bake it, I love browning it with a culinary torch to have that browned, toasty marshmallow-esque flavor but it's ready to eat NOW, but if you're a die-hard baked meringue fan, you can also bake it until beautiful and golden brown!
Storing and Serving
You can store the completed banana pudding dessert overnight in the fridge, any later and the bananas will start to brown.
You can also make the meringue and homemade pudding up to 3 days ahead, then layer everything in your serving dish.
To serve, you can either serve room temperature or chilled. I prefer chilled, honestly. Some people enjoy it cooled right after baking in the oven.
More Southern Desserts:
- Lemon Blueberry Sour Cream Pound Cake
- Southern Bourbon Peach Cobbler
- Pecan Praline Cookies
- Brulee Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie
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- 1 box vanilla wafers
- 4 medium bananas, sliced into ½ inch coins
Banana Cream Pudding
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 ¼ cups whole milk
- 2 large egg yolks (save the whites!)
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or extract
- 2 teaspoon banana cream extract
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 2 egg whites
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar, optional
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For banana cream pudding
- In a medium saucepan, whisk cornstarch, sugar, and salt together. Add the egg yolks and milk in and whisk well.
- Cook the custard over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, until the pudding is thickened and bubbling, about 7 minutes.
- Once bubbling, continue cooking for another minute, giving it a good whisk (but not vigorously).
- Take off the heat and gently stir in the unsalted butter, vanilla extract, and banana cream extract.
- Using a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl, strain the pudding into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap touching the top of the pudding. Refrigerate until cool.
- Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan over medium-low heat, attaching a candy thermometer to the pot. Once the sugar dissolves, turn the heat to medium-high and wait for it to boil.
- While the sugar and water are cooking: in a large, clean stand mixer bowl with the whisk attachment whip up the cold egg whites until foamy on medium speed. Add the cream of tartar, if using, and briefly whip again on medium speed, keeping the eggs foamy. Do not whip them into peaks.
- Cook the sugar syrup to 240 degrees F (116 degrees C). Once there, take off the heat and immediately bring the pan to the egg whites in the stand mixer.
- Begin whipping the egg whites on high speed and CAREFULLY pour the hot sugar syrup into the bowl of whipping egg whites. Do NOT pour it directly onto the whisk because it can fling hot sugar onto you.
- Let the egg whites keep whisking at high speed for about 7 minutes, or until the bowl is around body temperature. The meringue should be extremely fluffy, glossy, and white.
- Store the meringue covered with plastic wrap in the fridge for up to 3 days until ready to use.
- In a pretty trifle bowl, serving dish, individual dishes, or a 9 inch baking dish (depending on how you want to serve your banana pudding), begin layering the Nilla wafers, banana slices, and your homemade pudding. Keep layering them until you run out of either space or ingredients.
- Once your servingware is full, top the pudding generously with your meringue from edge to edge.
- If baking, bake the dish at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) for about 25-30 minutes, until the top of the meringue is becoming golden and toasty. Serve warm or chill in the fridge for 4 hours before serving.
- If NOT baking, use a culinary torch to brown the top of the meringue and serve either room temperature or chilled.
Store covered with plastic wrap in the fridge for up to 2 days.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 242Total Fat: 8gSaturated Fat: 5gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 88mgSodium: 106mgCarbohydrates: 37gFiber: 1gSugar: 28gProtein: 6g
All nutrition facts are estimations. Please see a physician for any health-related inquiries.
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.