Texas banana pudding
In the summer of 1923, Aza-Jean Jones of the Central Texas town of Sidney shared a recipe in a local newspaper. It was for banana pudding, and hers called for milk, eggs, vanilla, bananas, and 20 cents worth of a store-bought cookie known as Vanilla Wafers.
Banana pudding was not a new treat, as recipes had appeared in cookbooks and newspapers since the late 1800s. The earliest renditions, however, mixed a custard with said fruit, along with either bread crumbs or sponge cake. It wasn’t until 1921 that the thin vanilla cookie produced by the National Biscuit Company (soon to be known as Nabisco) became a key ingredient instead.
Vanilla Wafers were introduced by Nabisco in 1898. (The name was shortened to Nilla Wafers in 1967). Why it took 23 years for it to be combined with a custard enriched with bananas is a mystery, as is the name of the person who originated the idea, though the first published recipe with the cookies was in August of 1921 in the Bloomington, Illinois Pantagraph.
So, while Mrs. Jones may not have been the first to add boxed cookies to her banana custard, she was still one of the earliest. For Texans, Aza-Jean Jones was a banana-pudding pioneer.
Now, most people associate banana pudding with the South. While its origins are unknown, the initial recipes appeared in the New York media, which raises more questions than answers. That said, most appearances of banana pudding throughout the years have been in Southern publications, with one particular location reigning supreme.
If you guessed Texas, you would be correct. In fact, it’s the odd Texas barbecue, backyard gathering, or church potluck that doesn’t have banana pudding on hand. And for the past 100 years, Texas is tops for the number of press mentions of banana pudding, with over 20,000 stories featuring this beloved dessert appearing in Texas publications. For comparison, the place with the next-highest number of references is North Carolina with around 3,700.
Clearly, Texas is banana-pudding country.
The earliest recipes, besides using cake, also blanketed the pudding with a baked meringue. Even after the cookies took the place of pastry, the meringue often remained. A friend from Tennessee recently showcased her family’s method and it was indeed topped with a layer of sweetened, beaten egg whites.
A meringue, of course, is a practical consideration, as the custard calls only for the yolk and it allows the whole egg to be used. But in Texas, the meringue is usually set aside and if there’s any topping at all, it’s whipped heavy cream along with perhaps more cookies and bananas. Texas banana pudding is typically meringue free.
Another difference from other regions is that while it can be served warm, in Texas it’s usually chilled. This not only benefits eaters during the hot summer days, but also it allows the cookies to soften and meld with the custard and bananas creating a cohesive dessert that’s easy and comforting.
There are many variations of basic banana pudding, with some going wild and smoking their bananas or splashing bourbon into the mix. As for myself, I’ve been known to prepare peanut butter cookies and use those instead of boxed, or even turn it into ice cream. But sometimes you just want the classic, and so here it is—a simple custard layered with sliced ripe bananas and boxed vanilla cookies.
My banana pudding does not veer far from Mrs. Jones’ rendition, though I removed her meringue, as I’m not a fan, and replaced it with the more popular whipped cream. Though the basic chilled trifle has more in common with hers than not, a classic Texan dessert that’s been a favorite for almost 100 years. It may not be a native Texan, but like many, banana pudding arrived here as soon as it could.
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Texas banana pudding
For the pudding:
- 2 cups half and half
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 4 medium bananas
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 60 vanilla wafer cookies
For the whipped cream topping:
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- Place a metal mixing bowl in the freezer.
- To make the custard, whisk together the half and half, sugar, flour, egg yolks, and salt in a medium pot, and then heat on medium-low heat, continuously stirring. After about 5-7 minutes, it will start to bubble and then thicken. Turn the heat down to low and stir in the butter and vanilla extract. Turn off the heat.
- To make the whipped cream, take the bowl out of the freezer, add the cream and sugar, and then beat the ingredients until soft peaks form.
- Peel and slice the bananas into 1/4” rounds, and then sprinkle the slices with the lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown.
- To assemble the banana pudding, place a layer of 25 cookies and half the sliced bananas in the bottom of an 8-inch square baking dish. Evenly spread on top half of the custard. Add another layer of 25 cookies and the rest of the bananas, then top with the remaining custard.
- Evenly spread on top of the pudding the whipped cream. Crumble the remaining cookies then sprinkle the crumbs on top of the whipped cream.
- Alternatively, you can serve the pudding in 8 1/2-pint Mason jars or bowls. Evenly divide the cookies, sliced bananas, and pudding, and then proceed as above.
- Chill covered for at least 4 hours before serving, though if you prefer, you can eat it warm. It will keep refrigerated for 3 days.
I think the meringue may be either a regional thing or perhaps something that fell by the wayside over time. Most of the banana pudding I had in East Texas made by my grandmothers or other relatives as a kid back in the 60’s and 70’s had meringue. I like it either way though! Haven’t had any outside of a restaurant in decades, so maybe the meringue really has disappeared.
Kyle–It’s not what I grew up eating so I reckon you’re correct.
Lisa, thank you for all you do and I adore all your recipes! But maybe I am dreaming, didn’t your nana pudding recipe used to call for roasting a couple of bananas as a base for the custard? If so is there a way to get a link to the previous version?
Andy–Yes, it did. Here’s a link to the old recipe. Please holler if it doesn’t work for you! https://www.homesicktexan.com/wprm_print/7008
Definitely going to try this one. Raised in The RGV, this was a staple down there. There were a couple banana based deserts that were hits; the other being a banana glazed pie. The best found at Ferrell’s Pit in Sharyland. (Most folks preferred the glazed grapefruit pie, I prefer the banana.)
James–I haven’t had either of their pies, but on my next trip down I will. I’ve heard great things about both!
This was one of my all time favorite desserts my mother made. In our case, it would be an Alabama banana pudding! I still love it! Glad you pull out the oldies but goodies!
Glenda–Some oldies may be old but they’re still the best!
I was surprised to hear you say a meringue is uncommon in Texas. Every generation of women in my family back to the 1800s of Texan or from the Oklahoma Territories, and banana puddings always had a meringue. I loved it as a child back in the sixties. I made one from scratch for my grandkids once a few years ago and they turned their noses up at it. LOL..
These days I make it about once a year. I hate waste and nobody eats it but me. ):.
I also grew up eating “cobblers” that used multiple layers of strips of pie dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. I especially enjoyed the peach soaked dough buried at the bottom of a peach cobbler. When I search for cobbler recipes today 98% of the recipes use cake batter without a dough strip in sight. I’d love to know the origin of what apparently is an uncommon recipe variation.
David–Thank you for sharing your experiences and memories! It’s good to know that some Texans are continuing the tradition. That’s too bad your grandkids didn’t like it but that leaves more for you! As for the cobblers, that’s also how my grandma makes hers–with her pie dough. My great-grandma had recipe for the cake-style cobbler that she called a magic cake, so it’s been in rotation at least since the 1960s. I will try to discover more!