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.