Anatomy of a Classic

Banana Pudding Goes International

An Italian spin on one of the South’s favorite desserts

Photo: Johnny Autry

More than one cook has wrestled with what kind of dessert to make for a dinner party. The impulse is to create something fancy. But often what people want is a familiar, reliably delicious finale. Banana pudding semifreddo is the perfect solution.

The recipe comes from Kristen Hall, the pastry chef who owns the Essential, an all-day café in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, with her business partner, Victor King. Hall wanted to create a dessert that had everything she loved about traditional banana pudding, especially pudding-soaked vanilla wafers, but that fit the Italian sensibility of the restaurant. Her semifreddo, which translates to half or partially frozen, nailed it. Infused with banana puree and ribbons of salted caramel, it lies somewhere between a mousse and ice cream.

photo: Johnny Autry

“We like to take things that are very nostalgic and turn them into a surprise with texture or ingredients or even presentations,” Hall says. To serve the semifreddo, you can turn it onto a tray and cut it into slices, or do what they do at the restaurant: Scoop some into a coupe glass and drizzle on extra salted caramel.

Hall came late to baking. She has a master’s in public health and was working in health care until 2013 before deciding to pursue a career as a pastry chef. “I love the formulaic nature of it,” she says. “I feel like I understand it, or it understands me.” She began by dropping baked goods at the homes of friends and neighbors with her two young daughters, which grew into her first venture, Baking Bandits. What was once a darling of the local farmers’ market and pop-ups became Bandit Pâtisserie, which she also owns with King and is located down the street from the Essential.

Her semifreddo recipe calls for homemade caramel sauce and a double boiler to create the crème anglaise, which is just another name for what some Southerners might call drinking custard. Don’t be intimidated. All that’s required is a bit of patience and a methodical approach to putting it together. Once you get the technique down, Hall suggests playing with the flavors. She likes the idea of mint chocolate chip crème anglaise with chocolate sandwich cookies, or substituting pumpkin for banana and adding warm pie spices and ginger cookies.

“People always say, ‘Baking freaks me out,’ but I think people sometimes overcomplicate things,” she says. “Semifreddo is a wonderful example of a pretty straightforward recipe that you can make in advance and then pull it out and be a superhero.”  


  • Banana Pudding Semifreddo (Yield: 8–10 servings)

  • For the salted caramel sauce

    • 1 cup granulated sugar

    • 4 tbsp. corn syrup

    • 8 oz. heavy cream

    • 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, cut up

    • 1 tsp. salt

    • 1 tsp. vanilla

  • For the semifreddo filling

    • 1½ cups cold whipping cream

    • 1 tsp. vanilla

    • 6 egg yolks

    • 1 cup granulated sugar

    • Pinch of salt

    • 2 to 3 ripe bananas, pureed to equal 1 cup

    • 3 cups crushed vanilla wafers


  1. For the salted caramel sauce: Place sugar and corn syrup in a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, swirling the pan occasionally as the sugar melts. Cook until golden brown and at the edge of smoking, about 5 or 6 minutes. (The caramel can burn quickly, so don’t leave it unattended.) Very carefully and slowly, add cream to the caramelized sugar. It will bubble vigorously and quickly calm down. Add butter, salt, and vanilla, and whisk to incorporate. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

  2. For the semifreddo filling:  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk cream and vanilla until medium-stiff peaks form. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate.

  3. To make crème anglaise, add 2 inches of water to a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. In a stainless-steel bowl, whisk egg yolks, sugar, and salt until thick. Place bowl over simmering water and whisk until it reaches 170°F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

  4. Transfer crème anglaise to bowl of stand mixer and whisk on medium-high for 6 to 8 minutes until it forms a thick batter. Gently add chilled whipped cream to the thickened crème anglaise and then fold in bananas.

  5. Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap, leaving a 2-inch overhang to help you remove the semifreddo once it’s frozen. Add about 1½ cups crushed vanilla wafers to the bottom of the pan. This will become the top of the semifreddo.

  6. Layer the banana crème anglaise, a thick drizzle of salted caramel sauce, and about a ½ cup of wafers. Repeat with more layers until the crème anglaise is used up, finishing by sprinkling the remaining vanilla wafers over the top. Freeze 6 hours or overnight.

  7. To serve, turn out the semifreddo onto a tray and cut thick slices, or leave it in the pan and scoop out into dessert bowls or glasses, making sure to dig to the bottom of the pan so each scoop has layers. Drizzle with caramel sauce and serve.

​​Meet the Chef: Kristen Hall

Dalton, Georgia

Advice to home cooks:
Spend time thinking about why flavors work together and the science behind cooking techniques. “Then you can take recipes and just use them as a guide.”

Two daughters, ages eleven and fourteen.

Tips for raising kids who like to cook:
“Let them make a mess. Ask them questions while they cook. Teach them how things work and work together.”

Favorite way to grab a moment of Zen:
A cappuccino in a sunlit room.