I have always had this thing for Southern people. I don’t know exactly what it is about them, but I tend to collect them much in the same way I collect Canadians and Edward Gorey first editions. Maybe it was my obsession with Gone with The Wind at age nine, or maybe it was the fact that, at the age of five, I insisted I was a Southerner because I was from Southern California and could argue that Anaheim was at approximately the same latitude as Atlanta, Georgia.. There are lots of reasons, really, but none of them are really very important.
The lady– and I do mean lady– in the above photograph was very, very Southern. Her name was Elsieberry King. Elsieberry– you just can’t get more Southern than that. She was the best friend of my best friend’s mother in Greensboro, North Carolina. In some circles, that makes us practically related. Sadly, I never got to meet her, but my friend mentions her from time to time and has nothing but fond memories of this woman and, because of him, I have them too, even though mine are entirely made up.
I know very little about her apart from her fondness for her “wickuh, silvuh, and pewtuh.” And her penchant for making banana pudding. My friend Jay’s family, the Floyds, and the Kings rented a beach house together every summer. And every summer, there would be an enormous batch of banana pudding, made by Mrs. King, sitting on the kitchen counter to greet Jay and his sisters. And that tradition never changed. In later years, no matter what troubles my friend was facing in his life, if he walked into that beach house and saw a big dish of banana pudding sitting on that counter, he somehow knew that everything was going to be just fine. Pudding has that sort of power, apparently.
Banana pudding is something relatively new to me– a gaping hole in my Southern repertoire. I’ve mastered fried chicken, I make killer greens and lickuh, and getting better at biscuits every day. But I’ve never tackled banana pudding until recently, when Jay sent shot me an email that included Elsieberry’s famous recipe, which her husband found stuck in an old book, passed it along to his daughter, who then sent it to Jay, who sent it to me, who was going to send it to you.
And then I read the recipe.
Though hand written, it is– almost word for word– the recipe from the back of a Nabisco Nilla Wafers box. I don’t understand why I was expecting some else, like India ink on lilac-scented vellum, but I was.
It doesn’t matter one bit that her “famous” banana pudding came from the back of a box– somewhere along the way, she made it her own. To her family and friends, banana pudding might never be the same unless Elsieberry King made it.
Though Mrs. King is gone and I will never have the good fortune to meet her, she has inspired me to make my own banana pudding. It part me, it’s part Elsieberry, and it’s part back-of-the-box. I’m naming it after her, to give it a nice Southern touch. Though it’s being made by a California boy who has only ventured south of the Mason-Dixon line twice in his life, it doesn’t matter, damn it. I’m Southern enough when I want to be. Besides, I’ve learned a little something from my Southern friends, who have since left their homes:
Being Southern isn’t necessarily about latitude– it’s about attitude.
So do yourself or your husband a fayvuh and make yourself a little Elsieberry Pudding this weekend.
Serve Four to Six
There are essentially two kinds of banana puddings: those topped with meringue and baked, and those that are topped with whipped cream and refrigerated. The meringue version (which was Elsieberry’s preference) is delicious, but it doesn’t lend itself well to delightful, individual servings. I’ve gone the whipped cream, no-bake route, and with much success.
I have made two changes– nothing earth-shattering, mind you– to the traditional recipe: I decided to make a slightly butterscotchy custard, and I have added an extra bit of banana purée (mush, really) to the center to punch up the banana flavor. Give it a go, if you like.
This is a truly simple dessert to master. And one of the best things about it is that, the longer you let it set about and let the ingredients get downright neighborly, the better it gets. Banana pudding on Day One is delicious. Banana pudding on Day Two is fantastic. I’ve never had the patience to let it linger into Day Three, so I really couldn’t tell you what it’s like then.
1/2 cup white sugar divided into two 1/4 cups
1/4 cup plus three tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 egg yolks
A pinch of salt
6 medium-ripe yellow bananas sliced into 1/2 inch slices
2 tablespoons butter
One box of Nilla Wafers
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1. In a sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add brown sugar and blend. When the mixture begins to bubble slightly, add three of your sliced bananas. Coat bananas in the butter and brown sugar and cook well– until the bananas begin to fall apart. Transfer to bowl. Don’t bother to purée, just mash them with a fork and set aside.
2. Combine egg yolks and milk in the top of a double boiler. Whisk until thoroughly blended. Add 1/4 cup of your white sugar, the flour, and a heavy pinch of salt. Whisk over medium heat (and water, naturally– don’t forget to put water in the bottom pan of your double boiler) until well mixed. Now, using a wooden spoon, stir the soon-to-be custard until it heats and becomes, well, custard-like. About 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the top pan (or bowl) and cool it’s bottom in an ice bath. Set aside.
3. Layer the bottom (or bottoms, if you are serving in individual bowls) of your serving dish with wafers and create one ring of wafers facing the outside of your bowl to make the cookies look as though they are desperately trying to escape their fate of being suffocated by custard. Add a generous dollop (you’re creating a layer that doesn’t quite go all the way to the edge) of the mashed brown sugar banana. Cover with a layer of custard. Now roughly crumble enough wafers to create a crunchy layer, ringing the outside with slices of fresh banana to mimic the panic of their cookie brethren below. dot the top of the crushed wafers with more banana, then cover with custard. Repeat process until you have reached the top of your dish, but be certain to always finish with custard.
4. Refrigerate overnight, ideally.
5. When ready to serve, whip your cream (adding the second 1/4 cup of white sugar and maybe a dash of vanilla) until it keeps a soft peak, dollop a bit over each serving crumble a bit of wafer over the top(s) and add sliced fresh banana on top to warn of anyone unfortunate enough to suffer from banana allergies. One must think of such things, you know.