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Yes, We Have No Banana Pudding - Recap

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Alton wheels his cart through the food store as a muzak arranged version of the Good Eats theme plays softly. He stops at a large display of “Old Yella Vanilla Wafers” which has reminded him of banana pudding his mother used to make. She'd told him back then he'd have to wait until she dropped to get the recipe. Alton's chagrined to see it right on the back of the box, and sets out to cook himself a batch!

Somewhat later, Alton sits before a large bowl of banana pudding. He takes a bite, and it is... okay. But okay doesn't transport him back to his childhood (or even to a romanticized version of his childhood). To get the right effect, Alton will have to build his banana pudding from scratch. But that's okay, because it will be... Good Eats!

Banana pudding, at least as envisioned by Americans, is not simply a bowl of creamy yellow goo – it's a bowl layered with bananas and vanilla wafers. To understand its origins Alton uses a “time elevator” to visit the Victorian era, where many desserts originated. Here he sees foole – pureed fruit folded into whipped cream, popular since the 16th century. And syllabub, an old world froth made of sweet wine and cream. Over there is tipsy cake, a slightly stale sponge cake stacked, hollowed, and filled with sherry or brandy, then ringed with egg custard and finished with almonds. A similar cake is hedgehog cake, cut and decorated to resemble that creature. Nearby is the trifle, a stale cake saturated with spirits, cubed and mixed with custard, fruits and jams, and topped with whipped cream. Modern cooks struggle with the trifle, ironic considering it was originally essentially leftovers. It is in the trifle that Alton sees the origins of our modern banana pudding, but there are no bananas yet. For that, he'll need to visit another time and place. It's back to the elevator.

Bananas started as an American phenomenon, shipped from Caribbean growers to the port of New Orleans. Unsure what to do with them, American cooks followed an English model and turned them into trifles: booze soaked cakes, custard and sliced bananas. Alton watches as crates of the treat are offloaded, taking advantage of the opportunity to snag a bunch.

Although he'd love to suggest an exotic variety of banana, the old standard Cavendish, slightly underripe, is the best choice. Alton looks for bananas with no brown bruises and that still have a kiss of green at the ends. Each pudding (he'll make two) will require three medium sized bananas.

But the bananas aren't the key ingredient. The key ingredient is... the vanilla wafers! The time elevator has deposited Alton back in his kitchen where he examines a box of “Old Yella” vanilla wafers. He recalls that when he was a child the box listed vanilla as one ingredient. That disappeared a few years ago in a cost cutting move, replaced with vanillin, a similar chemical derived from wood pulp. Other cost cutting moves have left this treat of Alton's youth (he enjoyed them dipped in chocolate and chased with cold cow juice) smaller, drier and blander. He'll need to start from scratch here, as well.

To begin, he sets an oven to 350° F and positions the racks to divide the inner box into thirds. He'll prepare his wafers using the “creaming” method, which has three discrete teams of “software”. There's the sugar/fat team, including sugar, butter and eggs. (Alton offers bonus points for those using vanilla sugar, suggesting they consult the Food Network website for the recipe.) The wet team isn't large in volume but IS large in importance. Its members are milk and real vanilla extract. Finally, the dry team brings flour, baking powder and kosher salt to the recipe.

Butter, warmed to room temperature, goes into a mixer first. Sugar follows it in, then Alton blends for two minutes (stopping halfway through to scrape the bowl). While that blends he slides down the counter to the dry team and his sifter. He sifts the dry team together onto a paper plate. Sifting aerates the dry goods, making them easier to incorporate in the mix. The paper plate helps add the dry team to the mixer without creating a mess. Back at the mixer, Alton sees a nice, light, homogenized mixture, indicating that his butter and sugar are properly creamed together. Only then does he add the egg and beat for another half minute at full speed, creating an emulsion. He turns down the mixing speed and adds the wet team of vanilla extract and milk, mixing slowly until these disappear into the dough. Then he uses the paper plate, curled into a kind of chute, to guide the dry team into the bowl with a series of light taps. Once the dough has incorporated the flour, he moves it to the chill chest to cool for ten minutes. A chilled dough will be easier to work.

Using a disher that dispenses about a tablespoon, Alton scoops dough onto half-sheet pans lined with parchment. He forms a regular grid pattern that fits 35 cookies organized in a 5x7 array on each pan. His dough fills two such pans. Eighteen minutes of baking will turn Alton's wafers golden brown and delicious; other ovens may vary slightly. To ensure even cooking, he pulls his trays and turns them halfway through the bake. Once finished, he slides each piece of cookie-laden parchment onto a cooling rack, leavinjg it completely alone to cool for half an hour!

A pair of soldiers, one Union and the other Confederate, visit to debate the relative merits of northern and southern pudding styles. Northerners favor trifle-like puddings, assembled from custard and topped with whipped cream, which reflects a strong British influence. In the south folks prefer banana pudding topped with a light meringue, baked and served warm. This probably reflects a French influence; bananas first entered the United States in New Orleans, and later arrived via Charleston, home to a vast number of French Huguenots. At this point, the discussion as to whose pudding is better breaks down completely, threatening violence! A bemused (and perhaps a trifle disappointed) Alton watches, finally suggesting that there's room for baked and refrigerated puddings.

The pudding software for both versions contains dairy, sugar, eggs and starch, as well as identical amounts of vanilla wafers, bananas, lemon juice, vanilla extract and salt. The only odd men out are butter and banana liquor, both needed in the refrigerated pudding. Alton starts there, since it takes a bit longer to make.

In a saucier, Alton whisks together sugar, cornstarch and salt, then combines two whole eggs and one egg yolk. Most custards avoid egg whites, but Alton feels they will make his custard lighter, especially refrigerated. After incorporating the eggs adds some whole milk (never skim) and whisks for another thirty seconds. At that point he begins adding heat, shooting for a target temperature between 172° F and 180° F – the sweet spot where starches swell and proteins coagulate enough to produce a firm but not hard product. Alton believes that popular recipes that instruct the cook to “cook until thick” aren't precise enough, and only using a thermometer can guarantee a good result. When his mixture reaches 178° F he adds butter, melting it slowly and whisking it in. Butter lubricates the mixture, making it easier to spread. It also adds a nice sheen, and of course, it tastes good. As the mixture cools, Alton adds a final ingredient: vanilla extract. Because vanilla extract contains a good deal of alcohol, it boils at a low temperature, so Alton holds it back until the mixture has cooled a bit.

To prevent this custard from skinning as it cools, Alton takes a 16.5” by 12.5” piece of parchment and folds a triangle into one end, removing the excess to leave himself with a square. He folds the triangle “in half” to produce a smaller triangle a few times until he has a slim wedge. Measuring 5” from the pointed end, he snips off the excess. Unfolding this gives him a 10” parchment disk that he applies to the surface of his mixture, still in the 10” pan. The covered custer goes Alton's fridge until it drops below 45° F, about two hours.

Two ensure the vanilla wafers are properly moist and stay that way, Alton covers them with banana liqueur. This also adds a nice flavor. Next, he peels and slices a few bananas, tossing them with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. The citric acid in lemon juice denatures an enzyme responsible for turning certain fruits brown. He's almost ready to build the pudding. All he needs is the topping.

To make whipped cream, Alton adds very cold whipping cream to his mixer and follows it with some sugar. Using the whisk attachment, he starts slowly and increases the speed, whipping until stiff peaks form. The bowl of whipped cream is the final ingredient; now Alton is ready to build his pudding.

Into a plain quart and a half sized bowl Alton spoons some custard to act as a base. Onto that he layers some of the liquor soaked wafers. He tops that with a layer of bananas, then repeats starting with more custard, until he has three layers of wafers and bananas enclosed by four layers of custard. Whipped cream on top completes the pudding, which then goes back into the refrigerator for another half hour, giving the custard and cookies time to mingle. While that's going on, Alton heads south to the other pudding recipe.

Southern baked pudding starts with a 400° F oven. In the same saucier, Alton combines sugar, flour and a little salt. He adds egg yolks (no whites for this version) to this mixture. Because there are no egg whites, this mixture will be firmer, and require more vigorous mixing. Once he's mixed that, he adds some half and half, a little at first until he loosens the mixture, and then the rest. This approach prevents a kitchen mess when he starts to stir. Half and half contains more fat than milk, giving the mixture a smoother, silkier feel. Once the half and half is in, Alton begins to heat the developing custard, shooting once again for 172° F to 180° F. Why use flour instead of corn starch? Corn starch is entirely starch, while flour is only mostly starch. Flour contributes some milk sugar flavors which blend well with banana flavors. Alton also prefers flour as a thickener for recipes served warm. When the mixture reaches the proper temperature Alton kills the heat and then adds vanilla extract. His custard ready, he builds a pudding.

As before, it starts with a layer of custard, then a layer of cookies and one of bananas. This time, the custard is still hot, so it essentially cooks the bananas, releasing moisture. This allows Alton to use less sugar and eliminates the need to soak the cookies in liqueur.

Now Alton needs a meringue. To make that, he uses the whites he reserved from the eggs that went into the custard. He adds a little cream of tartar (mostly made of tartaric acid, this helps denature egg white proteins, making the whites whip more easily). He beats that at medium speed until it's frothy, then adds some sugar and increases the mixer speed, beating until soft peaks form. Over beaten meringue is difficult to spread; Alton takes care to stop at the soft peak stage.

Alton dumps his meringue onto the center of his pudding, then spreads it to the edges to “seal” the pudding. He bakes the finished pudding for about 10 minutes at 400° F, until the top of the meringue is lightly browned, then lets it cool for fifteen minutes before bringing a spoon anywhere near it!

The moment of truth arrives. Alton dips his spoon in the cold pudding. Then into the hot. He pronounces both delicious – completely luscious – but undeniably different puddings. Eating these similar but distinct puddings is like dating sisters, but much safer! Using either recipe, one can build a delicious pudding from a foundation of real vanilla wafers.

Alton has returned to the food store and donned a green vest so he can replace the “Vanilla Wafers” with “AB Brand Vanilla Wafers”, drawing the ire of the department supervisor! As the scene fades to black, Alton is dealing with that management situation.

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