For those of you who have never had it, banana pudding is very definitely indigenous to Texas and the South. Down here, this is a special treat, one drenched in family history, and revered as an heirloom recipe handed down from our parents’ and grandparents’ era. It’s fattening, unctuous, incredible, and in every way delicious. However–before I tell you how to send your guests into dessert heaven with my Grandmother’s Banana Pudding, you get to read a few things about her life and times.
Her name was Dollie Sue Nichols, but we called her Nanny. She was born way out in the country near the town of Glen Rose, Texas near the turn of the century–the 20th century. She was one of a whole passel of children, raised by a stern but loving set of parents in the days before supermarkets, automobiles, television–even before radio. Quite literally, Nannie and her brothers and sisters were their own (and only!) entertainment. This forced reliance on each other for support and amusement forged a bond that would last quite literally for over a century. The cool thing about Nanny, and about the whole Nichols clan, is how intensely they shared that singleness of mind. They hung together through everything–those Nichols kids were literally a band of best friends that just happened to have the same mother and father.
Nanny and her sister, Mamie wound up spending a lot of time in the Nichols’ kitchen cooking for their siblings and parents. Thinking of what life was like that far out in the country in the very early 20th Century, I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been for them to make a banana pudding like this recipe creates. Most certainly there were no last-second dashes to Whole Foods for organic bananas back in their day, no Kitchen-Aid stand mixers, no exact-temp ranges, not much of anything!
Things probably got easier when Nanny moved to Fort Worth’s North Side after World War I as a blushing bride who soon had three small babies of her own. To hear my mom, aunt, and uncle tell it, Nanny was a frequent visitor at the neighborhood grocery store where, during the Great Depression, she’d often barter the beautifully hand-stitched clothes she had made for groceries for her family. Still, evidently Nanny preferred the country life, because by the time I was born in 1958, Nanny had moved out of the city to a farm northwest of Fort Worth, where she was again able to harvest eggs from the chickens in the henhouse, get milk from the (surprisingly mean) cow, and in her spare time grow the most delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, and peaches this side of heaven. And the chicken Nanny fried was always…ahem….very “fresh.”
My brother, cousins, and I clearly remember three things about spending time at Nanny’s…..one, how different the weekends we spent working on the farm were than our normal, boring suburban lives…two, how much fun we used to have just out of Nanny’s watchful sight (dirt-clod fights and playing in the hayloft are memories that half a century have yet to blur!)…and the most important of the three, Nanny’s cooking. She had a number of signature recipes for which she was famous in our family, in her church, and in a surprisingly large swath of Wise County–like her fried chicken, her black-eyed peas, her fresh peach cobbler, and of course, her banana pudding.
So here it is…although, I have to admit I’ve had to make a few changes to Nanny’s original recipe. Nothing drastic (no instant pudding here, thank you!!), just a little update to reflect the differences of today’s ingredients. For example, I think the fresh cow’s milk–unpasteurized and just full of cream–must have made the pudding thicken better, so I’ve switched to half-and-half and added just a little unflavored gelatin. And store-bought eggs today have little dinky tiny yolks, not at all like the jumbo double-yolks that Nanny got fresh from the “girls” in her coop. So I’ve upped the number of eggs in this recipe. But the resulting product still tastes remarkably like Nanny’s. And as for her other three stand-out culinary achievements–her fried chicken, peach cobbler and black-eyed peas? Who knows, maybe one day I’ll share those recipes with you as well. Or–maybe not. After all, some family secrets are worth keeping!
NANNY’S BANANA PUDDING
6 eggs yolks (save the whites)
1 ¼ c. granulated sugar
4 ½ c. half-and-half
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 package unsweetened, unflavored gelatin
1 box Vanilla Wafers (don’t even think of using reduced fat!)
4 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
1 stick of unsalted butter (room temp)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the meringue:
6 egg whites from the eggs above
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Ground nutmeg for garnish
Separate ice-cold eggs, keeping both the yolks and the whites–just keep them separate! Beat yolks just a bit and set aside. Mix sugar, cornstarch, and half-and-half in a double boiler, and bring them to just below the boiling point (a candy thermometer is a great help here). Stir VERY frequently. If you scorch it–game over, start again.
When the liquid mixture begins to thicken slightly, slowly put spoonfuls of the hot sweetened cream into the beaten egg yolks to temper them, whisking the yolks constantly. When they are warm, *slowly* add them into the hot cream mixture, stirring like crazy (see, you get a great dessert AND a workout with this recipe!). Stir for another 5 minutes, still over the heat in the double boiler. Then add the vanilla extract, butter and the unflavored gelatin, mix thoroughly until the butter is incorporated, and cool the mixture for at least three hours. It helps to cover this with plastic wrap with the wrap actually touching the top of the pudding to prevent formation of a “skin.”
Just before you assemble the pudding, peel and slice the bananas and set aside. In a very clean and dry bowl, pour in the 6 reserved egg whites to begin the meringue. Two words of caution. First, if there is even a speck of egg yolk in the whites, the meringue will never stiffen. The oils in the yolk will just kill it. Second, meringue does not set up well on rainy or humid days (which makes me wonder if cooks in Seattle or New Orleans ever successfully make meringue). So plan to do this on a dry, sunny day. If it’s too humid for a meringue, then make some home-made sweetened whipped cream instead and top the pudding with that. However, assuming you’ve passed these hurdles, it’s time to make the meringue. In a mixer, beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar on “high” until you get to the soft-peak stage. Then add the sugar slowly. Continue to beat and as you approach the stiff peak stage add the vanilla.
To assemble, put the oven on “broil.” Spoon a bit of the cooled pudding mixture on the bottom of a glass dish. Then, put a layer of vanilla wafers, a layer of bananas, and smother them with the pudding-then repeat. You should get either 2 very generous layers or 3 skimpy ones. You’ll use the whole box of vanilla wafers–and I HOPE you use all the pudding! (Note: if you do not use all the pudding—and WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU??—add some blueberries or sliced strawberries to the remaining pudding and save for the next morning for a fantastic breakfast!) When that’s assembled, mound the top with the meringue mixture, making pretty little peaks on top. Put the entire dish under the broiler, watching extremely carefully, until the meringue starts to brown (usually no more than 2 to 3 minutes). Be CAREFUL-once it starts to brown it progresses QUICKLY! When it’s just a little less brown than you want it, pull it out-it will continue to brown a bit after you remove it from the oven. Finally, sprinkle ground nutmeg sparingly on top and serve.