Friday, July 26, 2013

An appreciation of Southern cooking

I've just returned from a food- and scenery-rich family reunion in South Carolina. I was fortunate to spend a week on a lovely beach in the low country, with big sky, dolphins, and a much warmer Atlantic Ocean. One of the best aspects of the trip was, of course, constant access to Southern food.

Southern food may represent everything that is wrong with American cooking to some people. To be sure, pork and mayonnaise (Duke's only, thank you very much) are in heavy rotation. Portions are big. I may or may not have had pimento cheese at every meal. But fresh ingredients abound. We ate delicious and local shrimp, peaches, corn, tomatoes, and peanuts. Legumes and greens play a prominent role in many dishes. And cooking from scratch is still revered. 

One night some of the relatives took on dinner for our large crowd, and turned out some beautiful ceviche and gazpacho. Dinner was delicious, but the crowning glory of that meal was dessert: they secretly concocted up a banana pudding from Miss Edna Lewis, a famed southern chef. Banana pudding, with its roots in the English trifle, is quintessentially Southern. And even if dessert that night did fall on the indulgent end of the spectrum (24 eggs anyone?), it was scrumptious.

Uncle Frank's and cousin Laura's creation

When I got home, I set out to make a slightly healthier version of this classic. And while I love food cooked from scratch, there is a time and place to incorporate pre-made items. Such is the case here with the Nilla wafer. You can use other kinds of cake or cookies in this dessert, but the Nilla just feels right. That being said, the recipe for banana pudding on the side of the Nilla box was depressing--it relied on boxed pudding and store-bought whipped topping. If you make it as instructed by Nabisco, the only whole food ingredient is the banana.

The irony of so many "convenience" foods is that they don't really replace something that is particularly inconvenient to make. Homemade pudding takes 6 ingredients and about 10 minutes to make. Homemade meringue takes 3 ingredients and again, about 10 minutes to make. In fact, a recipe like this that uses pudding and meringue is quite convenient, since you use the egg yolks in the pudding and whites in the meringue. Start to finish, this recipe took about 30 minutes to complete. Pretty convenient to me. So while I embrace the Nilla wafer itself, don't follow the recipe on the box. Use this one instead.

My version. 

Southern Inspired Banana Pudding

Makes 6-8 servings.

For the pudding:
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. cornstarch
1 t. salt
2 c. whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2 t. vanilla extract

For layering:
Nilla wafer cookies
3-4 ripe bananas

For the meringue topping:
4 large egg whites
1/4 t. cream of tartar
6 T. sugar

To ensure this recipe goes quickly, be sure all ingredients and equipment are at the ready:

  • Separate the egg whites and egg yolks. Place egg whites in a large bowl of a stand mixer, and place in the fridge.
  • Place yolks and vanilla near the stove. Place a thermometer and fine mesh strainer on a bowl near the stove.
  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  • Measure out cream of tartar and 6 T. of sugar and place near the stand mixer.
  • Place 6-8 wide mouth 1 cup mason jars on a baking sheet (you can also use an oven proof 8x8 glass dish). Place 4 wafer cookies in the bottom of each jar. Keep the bananas and a knife nearby.

Now you can start cooking.

For the pudding, place 1/2 c. sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan. Add a small amount of the milk and whisk to make a paste. Add the rest of the milk, whisk together, and turn on the heat. Heat the mixture, whisking, until it starts to boil. Once it reaches a boil, lower to a simmer and cook for one minute until it thickens.

Turn off the heat, and scoop out about 1/4 c. of the mixture into the egg yolks. Mix together, and return to the pan. Cook on medium heat until the pudding reaches 160 degrees, about 1-2 minutes, then take off the heat and strain into the bowl. Add vanilla and stir.

Cut about 5-6 pieces of banana into each jar on top of cookies. Ladle about 1/4-1/3 cup of pudding into each jar.

In the bowl of the electric stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat together the egg whites for about one minute, then add cream of tartar. Beat on high, and once the foam is established, gradually add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until the whites are glossy and have structure.

Spoon meringue evenly into each jar (it's okay if it overflows a bit). Make sure the pudding is completely covered. Place baking sheet with puddings on it in the oven and bake for 4 minutes, until meringues are browned. Allow jars to cool for 15 minutes, then refrigerate for 2 hours.


  1. As a former southern girl: love it. Thank you for using the whole egg... I never know what to do with the other part when only one is required. ;) Your meringue is lovely!

    Wonder how it would be with oatmeal cookies...

    1. I'd love to hear a report on oatmeal cookies!