Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Caramel Banana Pudding

Banana Pudding is a southern classic.  It is one of those desserts that if made properly, everyone eats and loves.  Because it is so revered in the annals of southern cooking there are as many recipes for it as there are people who love to eat it.  I present here my variation on this classic dessert.

The first thing I want to say is that until the age of 28 I absolutely LOATHED banana pudding.  This is probably because I grew up in the midwest where we don't know how to make banana pudding.  The only versions I ever encountered were made with banana-flavored instant pudding and slathered in cool whip.  I always associated banana pudding with artificial flavors and nasty gloppy pudding with soggy cheap cookies.

Then, in 1991 a fellow graduate student, Melissa, who lived next door to us in student village, made banana pudding, her grandmother's recipe.  She stopped by and said she had just taken it from the oven and asked if we wanted some.  I made a scrunchy face and said, "No...thanks.  I hate banana pudding".  When asked if I had ever had REAL banana pudding I became indignant and began to blather on and on about how revolting I thought it was.  My anti-banana pudding tirade continued until she just shoved a spoon of warm banana pudding in my open flapping mouth. I shut up immediately.

What I tasted was nothing like what I was accustomed to. It was sweet and buttery, and fragrant with vanilla and the amazing flavor of fresh bananas which in the homemade vanilla pudding began to exude their esters giving the dessert amazing overtones of rum and brown sugar.  The cookies were soft but not mushy and the meringue topping was light, barely sweet and ethereal like a warm cloud.  I had an epiphany.  THIS is what banana pudding should taste like, no wonder people love it!

I have been a convert ever since.  Like many of my southern friends, when I hear someone has made banana pudding, I begin to get excited, but cautiously... The interrogation of the cook begins.  "So, you made banana pudding?  Did you use banana-flavored pudding or vanilla pudding with bananas in it?  Did you make the pudding from scratch or is it from a box? Did you use meringue or whipped topping?"

There is one and ONLY ONE correct answer to these questions:  Home-made vanilla pudding with bananas in it, topped with meringue.

I also believe that banana pudding is best when it has had a chance to refrigerate overnight to let the flavors meld.  I usually prepare the pudding, cover it in plastic wrap and chill overnight, and add the meringue topping just before serving.

Since 1991 I have been making this pudding recipe and when I serve it, there is never anything left.  It is always the first thing to vanish and a potluck, so I recommend getting a serving early if you want to enjoy your creation.

So here is Melissa's grandmother's banana pudding recipe.  In this recipe I also added some Cajeta Caramel, but this is purely optional.  Cajeta ( kah-hey-tah) caramel is ubiquitous in latin america and is used as a topping for many deserts from ice cream to tres leches cake.  It is creamy and sweet and easy to make.  I think it adds a subtle caramel flavor which enhances the bananas and vanilla.

Another variation of this dessert substitutes peanut butter sandwich cookies for the vanilla wafers... delicious!

Banana Pudding is so iconic that local Chapel Hill band Southern Culture on the Skids has a song about it!  They even serve the audience banana pudding from the stage during a concert!

Caramel Banana Pudding
serves 12

Vanilla Pudding
1/3 cup flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups whole milk
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 box vanilla wafers
5-6 ripe bananas, cut into 1/4-inch slices

6 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar

Cajeta Caramel
1 12 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

If you are using the cajeta caramel, make this first since it takes some time.  Place the unopened can of sweetened condensed milk ON IT'S SIDE in a large pot (this is to ensure that you don't get killed if the can explodes from the pressure of cooking).  Cover the can with water by about 2 inches.  Place on the stove on high heat and bring the water just to a boil.  Reduce heat to keep the water at a vigorous simmer and cook for 2 1/2 hours, replenishing the water periodically to keep the can submerged.

Remove the hot can from the water bath and allow to cool completely before opening.

Delicious cajeta caramel!

Now prepare the Vanilla Pudding.  In a large heavy-weight pot combine flour, sugar, salt and egg yolks, whisking to combine in a thick slurry.  Add the milk and whisk to combine.  Add the cold butter to the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until butter melts.  Continue to cook until the pudding becomes thick but still pourable (about 10-15 minutes).  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

If using caramel, spread half of the can in the bottom of an 11x7 glass baking dish. Place a single layer of vanilla wafers on top of the caramel.  Cover with banana slices.  Spread 1/2 of the hot pudding on top of the wafers.

Place a layer of vanilla wafers on top of the pudding and drizzle with the remaining caramel.  Top with bananas and the remaining pudding ( If using caramel, you will not use ALL of the pudding because it will overflow the dish!).

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Before serving remove pudding from refrigerator, remove plastic wrap and prepare meringue.

Place 6 egg whites in a large clean bowl and add 1/4 tsp cream of tartar.  Whip egg whites until very frothy, then, with mixer still running, slowly add the sugar to the egg whites.  Continue to whip egg whites until they are glossy and hold a stiff peak.

Spread the meringue over the pudding.  Be sure to allow the meringue to adhere to the sides of the glass dish or it will shrink up in the oven.

Place the pudding under the broiler and broil until the meringue is golden and brown and just set (about 2-3 minutes).

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