Been There, Ate That is a series of blog posts where I recreate my favourite dishes from my travels
Researching where to eat in New York is an absolute quagmire of ‘best of’ lists, new openings vs classic staples, and the perpetual chance of ending up at an Instagram haunt that looks great but has all the food credentials of a soggy paper bag. I compiled one big old Google Map of places we could eat, but there were some that I read so much about that I added them to the essentials list: Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding was one such dish.
Magnolia Bakery first came to my attention when an episode of Sex and the City made a big deal about their cupcakes; it’s one of those places that is in the New York food zeitgeist, like Gray’s Papaya Hotdogs and Joe’s Pizza (both of which I featured in my Honest Guide to NYC’s Most Famous Dishes). The sort of place that makes you think of New York as a food destination in the first place, a romanticised version of grabbing a quick bite to eat walking down a busy yellow cab-laden street, something handheld that you can have while your internal monologue tells the audience how messed up you are.
The banana pudding is somewhat of an American dessert staple, it would seem. Desiree Birch recently talked about her mother’s version on Taskmaster and when I went in search of ingredients to make it, I got some very excited responses on Instagram from US expats here in the UK. That’s because the ingredients are very specifically American, which I guess is why it’s not a well-known dessert here. The construction of it is really simple and I may be starting a culture war here, but honestly, it’s basically a twist on a trifle: biscuit, custard, cream and fruit layers – different flavours, sure, but the premise is really the same and it is very easy to make.
I used the recipe from The Magnolia Bakery’s Handbook (easily found on various websites but I referred to this one) once I’d sourced the key ingredients of Nilla Wafers and vanilla pudding from UK based importer, American Grocer. Aside from unknowingly consuming them in Magnolia bakery’s actual version in New York, I’d never eaten either of these ingredients before. First of all, Nilla Wafers are straight up delicious – a good solid crunch, vanilla flavoured and kind of akin to rusks in terms of texture but infinitely better; the remaining biscuits in the box didn’t last long after the pudding was made! When it came to the vanilla pudding, I bought the Jell-o version, and it comes as a powder. The end result was like the lovechild of Bird’s custard powder and vanilla Angel Delight – I mixed it with condensed milk and water so it was incredibly sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.
Although at Magnolia Bakery itself they serve up the pudding as big amalgamated scoops, I went a little fancier – a crystal trifle bowl that used to be my nan’s, in fact. Along with whipped cream and fresh bananas, the layers were built up and subsequently demolished as I took a big serving. Crunch from the wafers, soft custardy pudding and whipped cream, the smoosh of banana – it took me right back to walking through NYC on a balmy September afternoon. And the amount I’d made? Enough to last a whole week’s worth of desserts for two people in a real twist of luxury during lockdown.