My great-grandmother on my mother’s side always hosted Thanksgiving when I was a kid. It was a family reunion with 70 to 100 people at her house in Fayetteville, Georgia. There was always banana pudding. But there was only one big baking dish of it, and it was hidden somewhere in the house. When it was announced that it was time to look for the banana pudding, whoever found it got the first bowlful. There was never enough for everybody. When I was about eight years old, watching TV in my uncle’s basement apartment downstairs, I opened the cupboard to get a water glass and saw the banana pudding. I climbed on the counter and pulled it down. This was hours before the main meal. I knew it was well before the time to hunt for the pudding, but I did the only thing an eight-year-old could do. I ate the whole damn thing! This was the first time I ever tasted the banana pudding because I was way down the family totem pole. My mom and I were joking about this incident a few years ago, and I asked her, “Who has the recipe?” She said it died with my great-grandmother. But the dish was pretty clear in my head after eating the whole thing that one time. The pound cake. The vanilla pudding from scratch. The meringue. I added a couple of things: I toast the pound cake so it doesn’t absorb as much pudding. And I brush brewed coffee over the cake because I love coffee and bananas together. Otherwise, this is built from my flavor memory of my great-grandmother’s banana pudding. My mom tells me it’s spot-on.
Feeds about 12 folks
Half-and-half – 2 cups
Whole milk – 2 cups
Vanilla bean – 1, split
Vanilla extract – 1 1/2 teaspoons
Eggs – 8 large
Sugar – 2 1/2 cups
All-purpose flour – 1 cup
Salt – 1 teaspoon
Butter – 6 tablespoons, cut into chunks
Pound cake – 1 store-bought loaf, about 12 ounces
Strong brewed coffee – about 1/2 cup
Bananas – 8 to 9 very ripe ones, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch coins
Cream of tartar – 1/2 teaspoon
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. In a large saucepan, combine the half-and-half, milk, vanilla bean and ½ teaspoon of the vanilla extract and heat over medium-high heat until bubbles start forming around the edges of the pan, about 4 minutes. Pull the pan from the heat. Fish out the vanilla bean and use a paring knife to scrape the vanilla beans and pulp from the pod into the milk mixture. Discard the pod.
3. Separate the egg yolks from the whites using the three-bowl method: one small bowl to separate the eggs over, one large bowl for the yolks, and a third bowl to collect all of the whites. Crack one egg at a time, straining the white into the small separating bowl and placing the yolk in the yolk bowl. If the yolk did not break, transfer the white to the white collection bowl. This method ensures that no broken yolk gets into the main batch of whites. If you break a yolk, you’ll only lose 1 white instead of the whole batch. For meringue, it’s imperative to have whites with absolutely no yolk at all or the whites won’t whip up properly.
4. Add 2 cups of the sugar to the yolks and whisk until very thick and light yellow, about 1 minute. Pour the flour into a strainer over the yolk bowl and shake the flour into the yolks. Whisk the flour and salt into the egg yolks until smooth. Slowly whisk ¾ cup of the milk mixture into the yolk mixture to gradually warm the eggs so they won’t scramble; this is called tempering. Whisk all the yolk mixture into the milk mixture and return the pan to medium heat. Cook the mixture until it thickens, about 8 minutes, stirring nonstop. There will be some lumps, which is fine. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter, one piece at a time, until it’s all incorporated. Blend the pudding with an immersion blender for 1 minute. Press the pudding through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any remaining lumps.
5. Slice the pound cake ¼ inch thick and arrange the slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Toast in the oven until they are lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Flip the slices and toast again until lightly browned, about 4 minutes more. Remove the toasted cake from the oven and brush both sides with the coffee.
6. Spoon about 1½ cups of the pudding into the bottom of a 2-quart deep casserole dish. Layer the pound cake and bananas on top of the pudding and repeat the process, ending with a layer of pudding.
7. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining ½ cup sugar and cream of tartar to combine. Whip the egg whites in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until they are thick and frothy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar mixture to the egg whites. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and beat until the mixture holds soft peaks when the whisk is lifted.
8. Mound the meringue on top of the pudding and spread to completely cover and seal at the edges. Using the back of a spoon, swirl the meringue into peaks. Bake until the peaks are browned, about 5 minutes. The top should be brown while the center of the meringue stays soft and creamy. Let the dish cool for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm.