My apologies for writing about bananas at a time when we clearly have more pressing things to talk about. But the White House isn’t taking my calls (“the comment line is currently closed”), and I’ve neglected this blog too long. I also think a lot of people might be in need of comfort food, thus the choice of pudding.
It’s hard to imagine now, when bananas are so plentiful and cheap, that they were an exotic fruit a few hundred years ago. James Fenimore Cooper mentioned finding bananas in markets in the 1820s, but they were a rarity until well after the Civil War, sold only in port cities like New York and Charleston. Cookbook author Eleanor Parkinson seemed to assume most readers were unfamiliar with the banana when she wrote in 1846, “This fruit is about four or five inches long, of the shape of a cucumber, and of a highly grateful flavor…. When ripe it is a very pleasant food, either undressed, or fried in slices like fritters.”
Many Americans got their first taste of banana at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Virginia Scott Jenkins writes in Bananas: An American History, that a banana plant on display with other exotic fruits “was so popular that a guard had to be posted near it so that visitors would not pull it apart for souvenirs.”
The banana was still unaffordable for most Americans, however. As Jenkins notes, the 10-cent fruit sold wrapped in tinfoil by a Philadelphia greengrocer cost “an hour’s wage for many people.” Bananas became cheaper and more available in the United States starting in the 1880s, thanks to transportation improvements like steamships with large holds, along with the growth of railroads. The fruit grew increasingly popular over the next few decades, as did other tropical fruits. Banana production expanded from the West Indies to Central and South America, and by the turn of the 20th century, more than 16 million bunches arrived in U.S. ports annually — four times the amount 20 years earlier.
Cookbooks reflect this change. In 1886, Sarah Tyson Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book had no recipes for bananas, just the suggestion that they “should be served whole, the large, red and lady fingers mixed.” Only 12 years later, The Ladies Home Journal Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book included Fried Bananas, Baked Bananas, Sliced Bananas, Stewed Bananas, Banana Pudding, and Banana Cake, all in a section called “Hawaiian Recipes.” Rorer’s cake is not the mashed-banana quick bread popular today (that became common in the 1930s), but a weird pudding-like dish with diced bananas and tamarinds, with grated crackers on top. I tried making it, and I’m sorry to say it was inedible.
There were several varieties of banana pudding in the late 19th century. One of the earliest recipes, tracked down by Robert Moss for Serious Eats, appeared in Good Housekeeping in 1888. It was made with sliced sponge cake and sliced bananas, with custard poured on top, sort of like a trifle. Hundreds of banana pudding recipes were published in the decade that followed, some made with lady fingers instead of sponge cake, some topped with meringue, and some made with gelatin, in molds. Then, around 1920, banana pudding with vanilla wafers came on the scene. As Moss writes, home cooks were the first to add wafers to their puddings, but Nabisco eventually ran with it, putting recipes for banana pudding on the side of its Vanilla Wafer boxes. This pudding is still widely made today, especially in the South.
I love vanilla wafer pudding but wanted to make an older pudding first, so I tried Mrs. Rorer’s recipe from her 1898 cookbook:
Slice six bananas and stew them with very little water. When done, beat them to a pulp; add four tablespoons of sugar, and turn them into a baking dish. Put a tablespoon of butter and one of flour in a saucepan, mix and add half a pint of cocoanut milk; stir until boiling. Take from the fire, and when cold add the yolks of three eggs. Beat the whites to a froth, adding the custard gradually to them, beating all the while; add four tablespoons of powdered sugar, a quarter of a grated nutmeg; pour this over the bananas and bake in a moderate oven a half hour.
This pudding was pretty good, and I liked the flavor imparted by the cooked bananas. But my family preferred a more modern vanilla-wafer pudding I made the next day. This one, by the late great Richard Sax, is thicker than Rorer’s (it’s made with cornstarch), and the bananas are just sliced, not cooked. Since the vote was 2–1 in favor of the vanilla wafer pudding, I’m giving that recipe here. You can make it without wafers — Sax preferred it that way — but I think the pudding tastes better with them. If you’re serving the pudding more than a few hours after making it, you might want to mix in the wafers right before serving.
Banana Pudding with Vanilla Wafers
Adapted from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts
2½ cups low-fat milk, divided
⅓ cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 very ripe bananas, sliced thin
25–30 vanilla wafers, or to taste
1. In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 cup milk, 1/3 cup sugar, eggs, egg yolk, and cornstarch, whisking until smooth.
2. In a medium saucepan, stir together the remaining 2 cups milk and remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, and bring almost to a boil over medium heat. Do not boil! Gradually add the hot milk to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Then boil gently over low heat, whisking constantly, until thickened, about 2–3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, pour the custard into a new bowl, and whisk in butter and vanilla.
3. Pour about a fourth of the custard into a 1- to 1½ quart glass or ceramic bowl or dish, followed by a layer of bananas and a layer of vanilla wafers. Repeat with two more layers, then pour remaining custard over the top. Cover top with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours. Decorate with additional wafers before serving. You can also leave out the wafers completely and stir them in right before serving — this helps keep them crisp.