A Harte Appetite: The Best Banana Pudding

Feb 15, 2021

Every region of the country has some special dish associated with it that purports to define the character of its culture.  But perhaps no region of the country has more of these iconic dishes than the Deep South where some of them have become so associated with that part of the country that the word South now appears in their name. Southern Fried Chicken is a case in point.

But of all of the iconic dishes of the Deep South none is more iconic than banana pudding.  Therefore you’d think that the best banana pudding in the country would be found somewhere in the South, perhaps Atlanta or Birmingham or New Orleans. But it turns out that the best banana pudding in the country can be found in New York City.

I was reliably informed of this fact by my 14-year old granddaughter who recently visited New York.  While there she was duly impressed with the sights of the Big Apple, but she came away also deeply affected by the banana pudding at the venerable Magnolia Bakery.

The bakery gained fame during the cupcake craze of a few years back, especially after several cameo appearances on the HBO series "Sex and the City." Since then, it has branched out to banana pudding, earning itself a reputation for making what many believe to be the best version of this dessert outside the South or anywhere below the Mason-Dixon line for that matter.

Though Southerners have embraced banana pudding, they hardly invented it.  Though we can’t be sure who invented the dish, it’s fairly certain that it can be traced back to around the time of the Civil War.  That’s because before that time bananas were an exotic fruit in this country, expensive and in short supply. 

Besides bananas the other indispensable ingredient in traditional Southern banana pudding, of course, is vanilla wafers.  And once the Nabisco company got hold of the idea, it capitalized on it, putting the recipe on the back of every box of vanilla wafers it produced.  And, thus, the top banana dessert was born. 

Magnolia Banana Pudding

This is the authentic Magnolia Bakery banana pudding recipe as adapted from the one in the bakery’s cookbook.  Surprisingly easy, this dessert, though from New York City, is arguably the best Southern banana pudding in the country. 

14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1½ cup ice water
3.4 ounce box instant vanilla pudding mix
3 cups heavy cream
4 cups sliced bananas
12 ounce box vanilla wafers

Beat together condensed milk and ice water until well combined.  Add pudding mix and beat well.  Cover and refrigerate 3-4 hours or overnight.  Beat cream to stiff peaks.  Fold completely into pudding mix.  Cover bottom of a trifle bowl with one-third of the vanilla wafers.  Layer one-third of the bananas on top and cover with one-third of pudding mixture.  Repeat layering twice more and garnish top with additional vanilla wafers.  Cover and chill at least four hours but no more than eight hours.