Tuesday August 31, 2010


I never liked banana pudding and, I’m sorry to say, church potlucks were to blame.

As a child, I hated potlucks. They say hell is other people, but I counter that hell is other people’s food. To a child, anyway. I loved the food on our table. Our desserts. Our Sunday lunch. But at a potluck, whatever my mom brought along swiftly disappeared leaving me to choose from countless unidentifiable, unfamiliar, unwelcoming items, each with a sticky serving spoon moments away from being fully engulfed by the dish in which it stood.

I want to love potlucks, everyone else seems to. I have this idyllic scene in my mind, a charming town where little old ladies crank out dreamy Corningware ensconced delicacies from secret family recipes. In the shade of tall, leafy trees on a Sunday afternoon, a potluck begins. Brick red picnic tables laid with blue and white gingham runners, mason jars of fresh cut flowers, and baskets of homemade rolls. Each item unique, the particular specialty of the one who made it. The sound of the first portion of some old fashioned dessert being dished out sound like the 0:08 mark on a Viennetta commercial, silver spoon intersecting alternating layers of crisp and creamy.

But when and where I grew up, no such luck. Viennetta? I should have been so lucky.

No, a selection of ready made items from Kroger layered in a 9” x 13” Pyrex constituted the closest brush with homemade those childhood potlucks ever saw. However-many-layer bars, somekinda chip brownies, bag of fruit jell canned biscuit cobbler.

Of these quasi-semi-homemade items, banana pudding was the worst offender. That tepid, congealed amalgam of fake-vanilla Jello pudding, sogged out Nilla wafers, Cool-Whip and bananas too ripe even for banana bread. Sometimes, meringue came into play, weeping sticky pools into the scooped out hollows. I’d weep too if I were left to die atop a pile of banana pudding.

Maybe such things made up the happy dishes of your childhood and, if so, I salute you. We all have our vices and I’ll leave you yours. It’s not pretension on my part; it’s not like I’d once loved these dishes but turned my back on them, snubbing the comforts of childhood in favor of more refined confections. I never loved them.

So when Saint Claire’s Timothy Price suggested I do banana pudding for a BraveTart photo shoot, I laughed awkwardly.

“Oh, yeah? That’s a good idea…” I shuffled off, hoping to avoid an incident.

Later, having heard of the banana pudding suggestion, Mr. BraveTart challenged me to right the wrongs of the blighted dessert, but I wanted nothing to do with it.

“Oh, you can’t make it?” he raised an eyebrow.

“Well, I mean, I could, but that’s not the point. It’s a bowl of goo. Not especially photogenic.”

“So you can’t make it and you can’t make it look good. I see.”

And thus the gauntlet dropped. Argh, how that man knows me!

Banana Pudding

Giving banana pudding a makeover didn’t take much effort. In magazines, and for many a dinner party, banana pudding gets assembled in a glass trifle dish to showcase its layers. But I longed to break up banana pudding’s arranged marriage to the container. Making it like a Charlotte wouldn’t screw with the textures of the traditional version, but would give it visual merit of its own.

What would take considerably more effort, however, was making a banana pudding that would please both banana pudding’s hardcore supporters and my own hardened heart. At the center of the issue, the not-so hardened heart of banana pudding: the Nilla Wafer.

Nabisco may claim their wafer as a sort of shortbread, but who are they kidding? Nilla wafers have a decent toasty crunch to them, but their walls have no fortification. In the presence of so much as a drop of milk, they go all wet tissue textured. As I tried to deconstruct their nature, I finally decided that they had far more in common with an extra dry lady finger or super thick langues du chat but crappier and made as rounds not…body parts.

So I made a batch of langues du chat, pushed ‘em toward Nilla level sturdiness with some extra flour and a heavy hand on the sugar. Of course, you can pipe them into rounds for a more authentic look. I used both shapes for my version, using the rounds on the inside layers, and the tall thin ones on the outside.

Finding a tasty replacement for Jello pudding proved no challenge at all, as actually making anything would taste better than milk-reconstituted pudding powder. But getting the texture just right took some effort. Straight up custard has too much moisture and would dissolve the cookies, whereas the pastry chef’s old stand by creme pat has just a little too much body. To bridge the gap, I used pastry cream lightened with whipped cream (technically this is known as “diplomat cream,” so write that down, there’ll be a quiz later). It has enough body to stay structurally sound but the cream gives it just enough ooze factor.

The last issue I needed to settle: meringue vs whipped cream.

Maybe some will say whipped cream, but banana pudding already has dense, rich, creaminess in spades. I went for meringue, specifically Swiss. Mostly because it won’t weep, but also because it needs a good blow torching prior to consumption.

When deciding on how exactly to do a banana pudding photo shoot Rosco and I both wanted it to scream, “Bananas!” Which meant lots of yellow and, naturally, a sock monkey.

Sock Monkey

If you have an upcoming potluck, I’ve made a rough guide to constructing the pictured banana pudding. There are several steps, but the pudding and cookies can be made ahead, so you don’t need to do the whole thing at one go.

What are your thoughts? Am I wrong on the whole pot luck issue? Or are there any others out there who just never enjoyed culinary Russian roulette on a precious weekend meal? Do the churches of Lexington, Kentucky simply host the worst potlucks?

posted byStellaand filed under:  Fruit  Sideshow Photos  Vanilla

34 comments and counting

Aug 30, 2010 · 11:20 PM

When you start selling prints of these photos, put me down for a sock monkey one. I vow to make it the core visual focus of whatever crappy NYC kitchen I have at the time.

 · JenRa · 

Sep 04, 2010 · 12:13 PM

Thanks for cookie jar of fresh-baked ‘nilla wafers. Considering it was 65 degrees this morning, it reminded me that I should put in a request for an apple pie blogpost/photoshoot/tasting

 · Mr Bravetart · http://www.thehopecircuit.com

Sep 07, 2010 ·  8:04 AM

Great blog and gorgeous photos! I am actually a fan of banana pudding (minus the soggy wafers, I place them in my dish rather than in the serving dish). I’m sorry you had such terrible luck at potlucks as a child. My experience has always been full of homemade desserts and family recipes of all kinds of side dishes. My only potluck complaint would be that no matter how many deviled eggs there seem to be they always run out first and nobody makes them as delectable as my mom. everyone else’s is too dry!

 · Sami · 

Sep 21, 2010 · 10:51 PM

Gah! I love this. Your writing is awesome

I’m not a fan of potlucks, either. If I can’t clearly tell what’s in it and easily discern the level of quality/nutrition… I’m not eating it.

Dear lord, I sound like the worst kind of food snob…

 · Kaitlin · http://whisk-kid.blogspot.com

Sep 22, 2010 · 10:11 AM

Hey Kaitlin, FYI, you made a typo. I think that last sentence should read, “[…] I sound like the best kind of food snob.”

My kinda girl! Also, with potlucks, you have no idea if the person who made the dish lets their cats walk on the counters, or is a finger-licker, or let their 5 year old “help” in some less than hygienic way.


Sep 22, 2010 ·  3:31 PM

that just makes me want to make you my dearest friend so you can make me one of these sometime. WELL DONE!

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Feb 04, 2011 ·  8:23 PM

You are hilarious and you make a mean banana pudding!

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May 06, 2011 · 11:12 AM

Potlucks have always, and continue to be, painful occasions for me. As a child I was disparaged as being “picky” like it was some disease. Like I was supposed to plop that lukewarm enchilada casserole on my plate and enjoy it. Now that I’m in the foodie world I’ve realized I’m not “picky” in terms of not enjoying a wide variety of foods, I just don’t like BAD food. And I think I’m safe from having to take on that other badly connotated moniker “food snob”, because I was hating bad food before I even had any cultural context or anyone to impress with my tastes or even knew why.

 · Chandra · 

May 06, 2011 ·  7:39 PM

Chandra, amen!! I’m not afraid to eat in buildings on the verge of being condemned, sketchy taco trucks, and all kinds of ultra dive-y type places, just don’t give me some confection of grocery store angel food cake, Cool Whip, and Hershey’s syrup. Ew. I totally agree; I don’t need high brow, I just need it to be real.


Jun 29, 2011 · 10:09 PM

Thanks for sharing your recipes and techniques, that’s very generous!
Today I made macarons for the first time. I’m so sorry that I didn’t find your blog only until I had my last batch out of the oven. I’ll make them again tomorrow using your tips.
Great blog!

 · ramoic · 

Jun 30, 2011 · 10:42 AM

@Ramoic, you’re so welcome! Glad you found your way here. Cheers!


Jan 02, 2012 ·  1:24 PM

Yum, so tempted to try using store bought ladys’ fingers to delay tasting any longer than necessary.

 · Susan · 

Jan 02, 2012 ·  2:28 PM

@Susan, haha, nice.


Jan 04, 2012 · 12:34 AM

Your banana pudding looks very good. I must say I grey up on homemade southern banana pudding that was delicious. My great-grandmother made vanilla custard, layered it with ‘nilla wafers and bananas. Then it was topped with meringue and baked. I think I’ll stick with that but I can’t wait to try your recipe for the langues du chat. I do share your dislike of the cool-whip and instant pudding banana pudding!!!

 · Dee · 

Jan 04, 2012 ·  6:50 PM

@Dee, your great-grandmother sounds like the real deal!! I’m sure her recipe is fabulous, if I had had one like that I’d probably have grown up a different woman, haha. Cheers!


Mar 13, 2012 ·  4:47 PM

As a minister’s child, I grew up with almost weekly pot lucks. If it wasn’t that, it was dinner at the house of one of the congregation. I can tell you for a fact that Lexington is not the only place where pot lucks abound with bad food. (We were all over Ohio, Kentucky, and even Massachusettes and they all had bad pot lucks… though they did serve different bad food.)

The one item of “food” that to this day makes me ill just to think about it was the green jello salad… made with pineapples and cottage cheese. Wow. Who would ever willingly eat that?

I didn’t loath banana pudding in the same way, but I have found that I much prefer a dessert without slimy bananas or mushy cookies as main ingredients.

I just found your blog today and I am truly impressed with not only the recipes, but the witty commentary as well. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more!

 · Jules · 

Mar 13, 2012 ·  8:45 PM

@Jules, haha, for a second there, I thought you were about to assure me that Lexington must have been an exception. So comforted to know I’m not alone in my pot luck trauma. As a PK, you’ve endured way more than your fair share.

Green Jell-O salad still gives me nightmares, I’m right with you!! Thanks so much for stopping by and for the kind words. Cheers!


Aug 17, 2012 ·  1:05 AM

YOU ARE AMAZING!! I’ve been engrossed in your blog for hours and I just found it today! I plan on trying everyone of your recipes. I love your style!

 · Ang · 

Aug 17, 2012 ·  9:21 AM

Haha, thanks Ang! This is a great recipe to start with, cos it’s probably my favorite. Happy baking!


Jul 02, 2013 ·  4:19 PM

Potlucks…yuck!!! have you seen what macaroni salad looks like after is has been sitting out for a few minutes…(gag!) I’m with you and the other comments on gross, BAD food that makes up a potluck. If I was forced to attend, I would only eat what my Mom brought because I watched her make it and her cooking was always dericious!!!

 · kreative1 · 

Jul 02, 2013 ·  5:56 PM

Hey kreative1! There is just something oh so safe about stickin’ with what you know your mom made. Those pot luck foods freak me out. Occasionally, I’d brave a cookie made by someone else, because really, what could go wrong with a cookie?


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