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Kitchen Project #25: Banana custard pudding
A stateside classic you're going to fall in love with
Welcome to another edition of Kitchen Projects, my recipe development newsletter. It’s so wonderful to have you here.
When it comes to recipe development, it can go two ways: Usually the process is led by spreadsheets, but other times it’s more about feeling and emotions. Today’s recipe is definitely the latter. I believe that anything custard based is something you make straight from your heart.
Perhaps you’re wondering... what is banana pudding? Well, I cannot WAIT to talk to you about this glorious dessert and change your life a little bit. I know the word ‘pudding’ can be a bit misleading in the UK (more on that in a sec) so I’ve added in an unofficial ‘custard’ in the title for clarity.
Over on KP+, I’ll be sharing a level-up recipe: The BUNana. A caramelised banana maritozzo style bun for you to stuff with banana pudding - they are totally outrageous.
Subscribing to KP+ is easy, just click below. You’ll get access to today’s recipe plus the whole archive of + recipes and chat threads. I hope to see you there:
And on that note, let’s get on with it.
Instant (pudding mix) classic
This is my first attempt to get banana pudding accepted into the UK dessert canon. I know it’ll never be a true British dessert since its roots are firmly in southern US cuisine, but with international travel so restricted, think of this as your ticket to go stateside. Tourism in your own kitchen.
I realise that anything called ‘pudding’ in the UK has a pre-requisite to be tied up with string and steamed, but THIS is a different sort of pudding.
Banana pudding is kind of like a jelly-less trifle. If that sounds a bit like leaving the house and forgetting to put trousers on, then I hope you’ll throw those cares to one side and give this a go anyway. It’s pure pleasure: A heavenly combination of bananas, light biscuits, custard and cream.
In today’s KP, we’re going to lean hard into the banana & custard vibe (more texture than you think, promise) and we’ll also cover how to make perfect lady fingers so you can level-up your tiramisu and gateau charlottes.
Puddin’ on a show
There are few cities that have influenced my taste as much as New York. New York was where I had my first pastry job and the first real city I fell in love with.
A few years ago I was at a fancy-ish restaurant in New York. We’d just finished our mains and, having seen plates of beautiful cheesecake, chocolate tarts and fruity custard tower looking things whizzing past, I was excited to have made it to dessert. I motioned to the waiter and asked innocently ‘to see the pudding menu’. He looked absolutely horrified.
“We don’t serve pudding here, sorry” was said with raised eyebrows.
My cousin, a NYC native, was laughing. I did not understand why I was the recipient of such a withering look. Turns out pudding isn’t a catch-all term for desserts in the US. Pudding in the US is a very specific dish and often comes from a ‘just add milk’ instant mix made of sugar, cornstarch and flavourings. And apparently, it doesn’t get served at Michelin star restaurants in lower Manhattan. Oops.
I realise that ‘banana pudding’ are two words that probably make you go ‘huh?’ so let’s get down to it.
Gone in 60 seconds
The first time I tried banana pudding was a transformative experience.
Back in 2016, we were having an ultra indulgent staycation sleepover at a hotel in NYC. To add to the indulgence, my dear friend Michael had purchased full pints of banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery. Not expecting to be impressed at the pile of sloppy looking creamy stodge, I took a spoonful, anticipating that my first would also be my last.
Before I knew it, half a pint was gone. I was in love. Truly, love at first bite. Somewhere between trifle, banoffee pie and tiramisu, banana pudding is an American classic that needs to make its mark in the UK. Plus, it’s been four years since I’ve tried it and the cravings just got too much.
The thing about banana pudding is that it kinda looks… deeply underwhelming. The more you try to dress it up, the worse it looks. Magnolia Bakery - who have my highest love and honour for their creation - don’t even try. They simply serve it with a scoop straight into a disposable ice cream cup.
When it comes to food, there is a lot of eating that is done by the eyes (or by instagram) so banana pudding must be tasted to be believed: Layers of custard, whipped cream, soggy wafers (sorry, you know, like tiramisu soggy, good soggy!) and bananas.
Although it might not sound like much, the combination of these together will take you to a higher plane.
The taste of nostalgia
In the US, banana pudding is almost aways made with “Nilla wafers”. These are a quintessential supermarket cookie/biscuit. It’s a thin, round and crisp vanilla flavoured cookie. I ordered a box from a US grocery store in London so I could get my bearings. Biting into the wafer, I was immediately struck with how similar it was to a good old ladyfinger. The texture of the nilla wafer was much denser, however, and much crisper. It had a good helping of salt and an intense flavour of fanilla - fake vanilla aka vanillin. You know the type. A bit OTT.
No shade to nillas, but I get the impression that they are the kind of biscuit that offers a Proust-eating-Madelines-like experience, but only to people who grew up eating them in the US. You know, there are just some biscuits that taste better with a side of nostalgia, with a memory of your grandparents house or school snack break.
This posed a bit of an issue for me when trying to recreate them as I was trying to balance two things: 1) keeping true to the original flavour profile and 2) creating a version that would still resonate here without that dose of nostalgia.
Although I do have some Kitchen Projects readers in the US, I know that most of the gang is UK based. So, I was battling between creating something I thought was *most delicious* and something that was true to the original. Although I may be summoning pitchforks, I’m pretty happy with where I got to in the end.
So, about those wafers
To recreate the nilla wafer, I started off by making a savioardi biscuit: An egg white is whipped to a meringue with sugar, yolks are whisked until light and then the mixes are folded together along with a little flour. The mixture is airy, puffy and holds its shape when piped. In a 200c oven, the mixture - thanks to the egg foams - puffs up and sets, giving you delightful rounds of lady fingers.
Although the biscuits looked the part, they were very soft and pillowy, rather like a jaffa cake (I spy my next project) instead of crisp. I wasn’t sure I had the right tactic.
According to Google and some very helpful recommendations in the DMs, the traditional way to recreate nilla wafers is not in the manner of lady fingers, rather with a classic cream butter method that is formulated to spread in the oven. Although I’m not trying to be contrary for the sake of it, I kept tasting the original nilla wafer and could not separate them from the ladyfinger vibes so continued on the journey instead of changing tactics.
To achieve a crisper biscuit, I decided to add some melted butter - for flavour - and bake the biscuits on a lower temp for longer. Finally, I got the snap I wanted. I upped the salt and finally I was almost there. I have to admit I decided to ditch the vanilla extract in the end, but please know you can ALWAYS add it in, if you want that store-bought cookie hit!
I did wonder, why am I trying to get these biscuits so crispy when I was about to soak them in custard? Although the biscuits do absorb some of the cream and go soft, you do want to begin with a tougher or stronger biscuit so you get more of an interesting texture at the end. The aim is comforting and soft, but it’s still fun to have a bit of resistance here or there.
Although lady fingers are quite an austere biscuit, I found myself snacking on these constantly. I think they’d also be wonderful dipped in chocolate or sandwiched with buttercream.
Condensed milk dreams
Condensed milk is a true pleasure of mine. My grandma used to open a tin and she’d pour out a little bit for me, a little bit for her and a little bit for the cat, too.
I knew I wanted to get this ultra milky flavour involved with the custard. Sometimes in the kitchen, the things you think will be the easiest really give you the runaround. The condensed milk custard was one of them. I figured I’d start in the simplest place I could - I removed all the sugar from my custard base recipe and replaced the dairy entirely with condensed milk.
BIG MISTAKE. HUGE.
Condensed milk is sugary AF and, as I tried to *gently* heat it on the stove, it immediately burnt from the direct heat. Genuinely a Pretty Woman level of error. It took me two hours of soaking and scrubbing to get that pot clean.
For my next attempt, I replaced half the milk with condensed milk and - again - removed all of the sugar, allowing the dairy to account for it.
I’m not sure how to tell you this, but THIS is what happened:
I think the quantity of sugar in the condensed milk was so high that it was gelling oddly with the yolk. Since the condensed milk is so sensitive, I decided to ditch any sort of heating to incorporate it. I knew I wanted the custard to stay firm so I increased the starch in the pastry cream and then, once thickened, stirred in condensed milk to get the liquid quantity back up. Although it set up just fine, there was a lingering starchy flavour in the background that wasn’t letting up. Back to the drawing board.
At this point, I started to wonder why I was trying so hard to incorporate condensed milk flavour into the thickened custard part, and why I wasn’t just incorporating it into the second stage of our custard journey.
Queen of custards
We’ve made quite a few batches of pastry cream in our time together on this newsletter but somehow we’ve never covered all the ways you can adapt it.
When it comes to pastry cream, there’s a few things you can do with it and adapt it, to take it to new, fluffy heights. Even if you’re not a maths fan, I think you’ll be into these equations:
Pastry cream + butter = creme mousseline
Pastry cream + Italian meringue = creme chiboust
Pastry cream + whipped cream = creme legere
Pastry cream + whipped cream stabilised with gelatine = creme diplomat
Now, I promise to take you through all of these recipe by recipe but today it’s all about creme legere. Creme legere and diplomat cream are sometimes referred to interchangeably but in a fancy french kitchen, diplomat is aways stabilised with gelatine. It’s usually used to fill choux, eclairs and anything else that might be hanging around in the pastry case for a while and needs a bit of help standing up.
One of my favourite ways to adapt a whipped cream recipe is to sweeten it with an alternative sugar. Be it honey, maple or, in this case, condensed milk, it’s a good way to incorporate new flavour profiles directly into your dairy. For this recipe, I played around with the ratios and decided on a 0.8:1 ratio of custard to whipped condensed milk cream. I know it is bizarre to call anything with cream in it ‘light’, this truly does feel airy and delicate, gently sweet without being cloying.
One thing you should always remember when adapting your cream is managing the sugar levels - knowing I’d be adding the very sugary condensed milk, I lowered the overall sugar content in the custard itself to ensure things stayed on the right side of sweet.
A true banana pudding does not feature caramel. But I just couldn’t help myself.
Did you know that banoffee is actually a classic British dessert? Invented in East Sussex in the 70s, banoffee is actually not widely eaten or popular in the US! I ran this by the queen of all pies, founder of Fat and Flour and author of ‘Dappled’ Nicole Rucker, who confirmed it. Banoffee doesn’t get a look in. I’m not sure about you, but this fact always surprises me. American = country of all pies. And yet, the most overexposed pie in all England, hardly gets a look in.
I thought about caramelising the bananas but in the end I had to go for a good old dollop of caramel sauce. This helped me control the flavours a bit better and took the pressure off storing caramelised bananas (that’s a story for another time) whilst waiting to build it. Ever adaptable, this is a super classic caramel sauce ratio.
How to use the pudding
Whilst banana pudding is certainly delicious on its own, I think there’s so much fun you could have with this filling. Spoon it into choux buns, use it as a layer in an entremet, turn it into a mille feuille, you name it. Over on KP+, I’ll share my method for caramelised banana buns and directions for filling your own!
Alright let’s make it!
Banana caramel custard pudding recipe
This makes 4-6 smaller banana puddings OR make a big one for your next barbecue in a big glass dish and leave a big spoon and bowls nearby! Trust me.
If you are going to turn these into BUN-anas, then you can build the banana pudding straight into a tupperware since you’ll just be scooping it into buns later, rather than displaying it in a dish.
Pastry Cream (less sweet)
180g whole milk
25g caster sugar
30g egg yolks
250g pastry cream from above
160g double cream
50g condensed milk
(this makes double but these biscuits are super useful!)
2 eggs, separated
IF DESIRED, ½ tsp vanilla extract
Note: To make classic savioardis, don’t add butter and pipe thick lines on a baking sheet and bake at 200c for 8 mins
60g caster sugar
120g double cream
Pinch of salt
Ladyfinger biscuits - method
Pre-heat oven to 160c fan
Whisk egg whites and 20g of the sugar until a stiff meringue
Whisk egg yolks with rest of the sugar until combined
Fold the egg yolks and whites together gently
Sift flour on top of the mixture then add salt and fold it all together gently
Finally drizzle in melted butter and fold together
Scrape mixture into a piping bag and pipe rounds onto a baking sheet. You could also use a teaspoon and spoon it on. They’ll be messier but you’ll be crumbling these up to use them in the end
Tap the baking sheet to spread the mixture out a bit and burst any large bubbles
Bake for 20-25 mins until the rounds are a dark golden colour and crisp. You should get a good ‘snap’ once cooled. If not, return to the oven and bake for 5 mins longer
Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container for two weeks!
Pastry cream - method
Heat milk until simmering
Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks with cornflour and sugar
Temper the egg yolks with by pouring a little hot milk on the mixture and whisking well - then return the whole mixture to the stove
Heat on medium until thickened
Leave to cool completely
As the cornflour has a jellying effect, you must beat the creme pat with a spatula before using it to make it smooth and lush and to remove any lumps. If you have lumps you can press it through a sieve but it shouldn’t be necessary
Creme legere - method
Beat the pastry cream until smooth. You can press through a sieve if it has lumps in. Set aside
Whip the double cream and condensed milk until thick peaks form
Gently fold the two together to make a super lush cream
Set aside - keeps in the fridge for 3 days
Caramel sauce method
Heat sugar on a medium heat until totally melted. I don’t touch it at all! Once it is melted watch it - you want it to be dark. Be brave! It will be paired with cream and bananas so this is an opportunity for it to stand out
Whisk in cream, which will bubble aggressively, followed by the butter and salt
Leave to cool completely. You may need to rewarm slightly to be pipeable consistency
This lasts in the fridge for 7 days
Cut banana into thin rounds, I like 0.5cm
Warm your caramel sauce to pipeable temperature and put into a small piping bag
Start layering up - banana, followed by crushed up biscuits and a drizzle of caramel and finally adding the custard cream. Continue layering, finishing with a swipe of cream on top. You can either make a swirly caramel pattern OR just decorate with biscuit crumbs and sauce, Up to you!
Leave in the fridge to let the biscuits absorb some of the cream for 4 hours or overnight if you are preparing in advance. You want the biscuits to absorb some of the custard
Decorate with a few biscuit crumbs and some dabs of caramel sauce
If you’re planning to make bunanas, you can also just mix the whole banana pudding in a bowl (not very glam) then leave to chill in the fridge in one big tub!
For all the details on the BUN-anas and how to build them, click here