(This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Pecan smoked banana pudding with candied bacon for 400 in Chicago…chocolate pudding crowned with toffee-popped sorghum at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern…pudding shops popping up from California to New Jersey… Magnolia Bakery rolling out a Pudding-of-the-Month Club… seems like Americans are going bananas for puddings.
With comfort and convenience current culinary mantras, this classic dessert, traditional or with a twist, is easy to make and to serve, either at a barbecue or at a table for two. It was the former for Stephanie Oliviera, Executive Pastry Chef at Saks Fifth Avenue’s L’Avenue, operated by Restaurant Associates. After Oliviera was promoted to Regional Pastry Chef for the company this spring, in addition to her work at L’Avenue, she was asked to come up with a standout, comfort food dessert for the annual barbeque cookoff for hospitality professionals attending the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. “It was a new role for me,” she recalls, “and obviously I was very honored.”
Inspired by Banoffee, a British version of banana pudding, Oliviera explains, “We smoked the bananas in a smoker with pecan wood, and layered them with pudding and caramel, and for a garnish, candied bacon that had been sugar-coated and cooked in the oven.” The bacon, she adds, “can go from not cooked to burned in seconds, so it’s really just keeping an eye on it, making sure you’ve got the color you are looking for.” The dessert was a great success, according to Beverly Stephen of Flavor Forays, an organizer of the event. “Everyone was talking about it.”
Also buzzing about banana pudding this spring was the YouTube audience for Food & Wine’s ‘Pastries with Paola’, when acclaimed Washington D.C. pastry chef and co-founder of Bakers Against Racism Paola Velez devoted an episode of the series to Banana Pudding Paletas. In the video, Velez made the pops with a custard base, browned butter, and whipped cream, studded with chunks of banana and crushed vanilla wafer cookies. Frozen in molds, the paletas were covered with a white chocolate shell, and finished with additional cookies and chocolate sprinkles.
While “pudding” is traditionally made with cornstarch or another thickening agent and “custard” with egg yolks, Velez is among many contemporary chefs using both along with a broad range of ingredients under the pudding umbrella. Cornstarch as a culinary ingredient first became popular after the Civil War, about the same time that steamships were bringing boatloads of bananas to American shores. The earliest known recipe for banana pudding, published in Good Housekeeping in 1888, called for alternating layers of fruit, custard and sponge cake, topped with whipped cream. Substituting vanilla wafers for sponge cake was a game changer starting in 1921, and the introduction of powdered mixes by My-T-Fine in1918 heralded another pudding landmark, as did the use of condensed milk for yet another shortcut. There is no timeline pinpointing when the iconic dessert became associated with the South, but banana pudding historians speculate that it was tied to the region’s penchant for large social gatherings and nostalgic recollections of family foodways. Although now a national favorite, enthusiasts from across the country flock to Centerville Tennessee the first weekend in October for the annual National Banana Pudding Festival, where contestants vie for the best puddings and crowds feast on winning recipes.
However, while fans abound, there are many anti-banana pudding aficionados like Shilpa Uskokovic, Food Editor at Bon Appetit. For the June/July issue of the magazine, she notes, “I created a banana pudding, but no bananas allowed. Just the joy of ripe, tangy, summer berries running amok in buttery vanilla pudding and cream, plus a handful of crunchy vanilla wafers.” Uskokovic admits, “I really dislike fresh bananas. I love banana flavored things, but I can’t deal with chunks of the fresh fruit. It’s a textural thing I think …but I love everything else about it. So, I decided to make a banana pudding for other banana haters like me.”
For Shilpa’s husband, Miro Uskokovic, Executive Pastry Chef at Michelin-starred Gramercy Tavern, “chocolate pudding is my favorite, and is very American.” To create something familiar and nostalgic while adding complexity with toppings, Uskokovic dreamed up “a luscious creamy pudding made with Valrhona 70% chocolate, local milk, butter, eggs, brown sugar and cornstarch. It is finished with salted caramel sauce, whipped sour cream, local raspberries and toffee-popped sorghum.” The popped sorghum, he continues, “is reminiscent of popcorn, just much smaller and more flavorful – nutty and fruity. We ‘toffee’ it in the same way one would popcorn with sugar and butter, but we add sorghum syrup to increase fruitiness.”
Two other New York pastry chefs are adding Asian accents to their chocolate puddings. Clarice Lam, working on her first cookbook and preparing to judge a new cooking competition this winter, tops her pudding with miso caramel and a dollop of whipped cream. Kelly Nam, Executive Pastry Chef/partner at fine dining Joomak Banjum, recently added a pudding to the menu made with sake kasu, a white paste with a floral flavor, the lees of sake, with a chocolate glaze and raw cocoa crumble.
Both cocoa and chocolate are ingredients in the dairy-free pudding that cookbook author Jessie Sheehan developed for Valrhona using Oriado 60%, and are also components of food photographer/cookbook writer Yossy Arefi’s Chocolate Pudding with Raspberry Cream, one of seven desserts on The New York Times Cooking’s list of ‘The Fifty Most Popular Recipes of 2021’. Another of the successful seven on The Times list: Melissa Clark’s Old Fashioned Butterscotch Pudding. Thickened with both egg yolks and cornstarch, the recipe includes options for adding bourbon or Scotch whisky, and a choice of garnishes including candied ginger, sliced almonds, Demerara sugar, shaved chocolate, cacao nibs or flaky sea salt.
Butterscotch ranks high in the pudding pantheon, from Los Angeles, where the signature Butterscotch Budino at Pizzeria Mozza is served with warm caramel sauce, whipped créme fraîche, and a sprinkle of sea salt, to the Miso Butterscotch Pudding with a savory undertone developed by Executive Pastry Chef Caroline Schiff at Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner, for the Sunken Harbor Club, the restaurant’s intimate cocktail bar. “I’ve always felt that drinks with fruity, floral and aromatic notes, go as well with sweets as with salty snacks,” Schiff comments. “Regular butterscotch and salted caramel weren’t hitting the spot, but with white miso, combined with toasted butter, brown sugar and a cinnamon stick, it came to life, sweet but then deeply savory.”
Cinnamon is key as well in Stephanie Oliviera’s rice pudding with fresh grated cinnamon bark, which, she says, “is the most popular dessert I do after s’mores” at L’Avenue. The pudding is served warm in a shallow bowl, with black mission figs and house-made caramelized honeycomb using dark, Catskill Farms honey, adding “great crunch and texture.” Figs and texture also figure in Kelly Nam’s fig leaf meringue filled with tiramisu rice pudding and balsamic vinegar caramel, topped with sugar-cured egg yolk and fresh figs, and accompanied by vanilla frozen yogurt on a bed of black peppercorn and lavender hazelnut crumble. “I wanted it to look like a jewel box, so the star is really the sugar-cured egg yolk, which is like a jewel,” Nam says of the Chinese-themed dessert.
Rice pudding dates back to antiquity with iterations in almost every cuisine, and in the New York area a trio of highly praised new restaurants representing different cultures are showcasing the dish: Budino de Riso with pomegranates at Ignacio Mattos’s Lodi in Rockefeller Center, cardamon scented Firni with berries and rose syrup at Surbhi Sahni’s Indian Tagmo in the South Street Seaport district, and in East Hampton, Yilmaz G’s Sutlak, baked, bruleed and sprinkled with walnuts, at El Turko, a dish that dates back to the Ottoman Empire.
For rice pudding devotees, however, the destination for almost 20 years has been downtown Manhattan’s Rice to Riches, a niche food stalwart with a roster of dozens of novel flavors like Coconut Coma and Vegan Almond Shmalmond, available in all sizes from Diva (6 ounces) to Moby (80 ounces). Rice to Riches started with a shop, but many of today’s pudding entrepreneurs began selling at farmers’ markets, expanded to food trucks, and then built brick and mortar establishments. Among the West Coast success stories – Qanisha Johnson’s “nostalgic flavored reimagined” Yes Pudding, transitioning from farmers’ markets in 2018 to San Francisco’s Ferry Building last December. In San Diego, Toran Grays began making his family’s revered banana pudding for friends and relatives in 2018, moved on to catering, and two years later had raised enough money to open Extraordinary Banana Pudding, adding two dozen variations, red velvet to strawberry cheesecake in addition to the original. His shop in San Diego County’s La Mesa did so well that he opened a branch in Long Beach in the fall of 2021 and is currently considering further expansion.
Across the continent, New Jersey has been a pudding mecca. The Puddin Palace in Oaklyn, originally home-based and for the past three years in brick and mortar, is expanding in a different direction, opening Yummie’s Palace next door to offer other types of food. Jersey City-based Baonanas, started a decade ago by college students Lloyd and Trisha Ortuoste to pay for a car repair, morphed from kitchen to food truck to a shop, then to a second outlet, and this summer crossed the Hudson River to add an East Village location. In a departure from the standard banana pudding formula, the Ortuostes, reflecting Filipino roots, use a leche flan base and whipped cream to achieve a fluffy, mousse-like texture for flavors such as Lychee Rose, Strawberry Basil and Zesty Mango topped with sweet lemon syrup and lemon zest. Spoonable Spirits, also ventured into Manhattan this summer offering boozy pudding shots like Vanilla Vodka, Rum ‘n’ Cookie, and Chocolate Caramel Whiskey; more proof of the infinite possibilities of palate pleasing puddings.