Anatomy of a Classic

Banana Pudding’s Heated Debate

Chef Rob McDaniel channels warm memories of the sweet Southern dessert


Among the many fierce and tangled debates about Southern food, banana pudding offers a clear line of demarcation: Either you like it cold, or you like it warm. Chef Rob McDaniel, who owns Helen in Birmingham with his wife, Emily, is a warm pudding guy. He grew up in Haleyville, a town of about 4,300 people in northern Alabama. Both his grandmothers made warm banana pudding. They’d layer cookies and warm custard with banana slices in a Pyrex dish, then top it with egg whites and sugar whipped into a simple meringue.

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“If I had cold banana pudding, it was because it had been sitting on the counter and it was later after lunch,” he says. “When I eat cold pudding, I think of one of those pudding cups.”

When McDaniel was considering adding warm banana pudding to the menu at Helen, which he named after one of those grandmothers, he asked the staff for a show of hands. “How many people grew up eating warm banana pudding?” Only half the room raised a hand. “It was kind of mind-boggling,” he says. “I knew cold banana pudding existed, but I didn’t realize how many people were purists about it.”


McDaniel, who has a hospitality degree from Auburn and studied at the New England Culinary Institute, set out to change some of those minds by making a homey but sophisticated version of the pudding he was raised on. It starts with pecan sandies, which stand in for the traditional vanilla wafer cookies. He bakes his own, and if you have a favorite recipe for pecan sandies and the time to make a batch, it’s a wonderful touch. Otherwise, he says, store-bought is fine.

As for the warm custard, keep an eye on it as it cooks, he advises, so it doesn’t get too thick. The crowning touch is an Italian meringue, which requires beating hot sugar syrup into egg whites. It’s a little trickier than what his grandmothers used to top their pudding, but much silkier and substantial enough so swirled peaks of it brown nicely. He uses a kitchen torch, but a brief trip under a broiler works, too. (His recipe will leave you with some extra meringue, which he suggests baking into small meringue cookies to serve on the side. It can also sub in for frosting on cupcakes.)

At the restaurant, McDaniel layers cookie pieces, banana slices, and custard into jelly-style mason jars. You can top the jars with the meringue and serve right away, or keep them in a warm-water bath until dinner is over. It’s a bit fancier than his grandmother’s Pyrex pudding, but the effect, he says, is the same. “It’s like this warm hug,” he says. “You don’t get that from cold banana pudding.”



  • Warm Banana Pudding (Yield: 4 (8 oz.) servings)

  • For the meringue (Yield: About 4 cups)

    • 1½ cups granulated sugar

    • ¾ cup water

    • 6 egg whites

    • Pinch of cream of tartar

  • For the custard (Yield: About 4 cups)

    • 3 egg yolks

    • 3 cups whole milk

    • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

    • ¼ cup flour

    • 1½ cups sugar

    • ¼ tsp. salt

  • To assemble

    • 8 to 10 pecan sandies, broken into quarters

    • 2 bananas, sliced into rounds


  1. Make the meringue: Combine sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pot, then place over medium heat. Stirring frequently, allow sugar to dissolve and reach a temperature of 245°F on a candy thermometer (also called the soft ball stage). While the sugar-water heats, place egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk the egg whites just until frothy.

  2. With the mixer on medium speed, slowly drizzle the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites. Once all the sugar mixture has been incorporated, whip on high until thick and glossy. Set aside until it’s time to assemble the dessert.

  3. Make the custard: In a large bowl, mix the wet ingredients together with a whisk. In a separate bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and mix well. Whisk dry ingredients into wet ingredients, making sure to whisk out any lumps. Pour the custard mixture into a heavy-bottomed pot and begin to cook over medium heat. Stir constantly; the mixture burns very easily. The custard will thicken in about 5 to 8 minutes. Don’t cook it until it is too thick. If your custard has lumps and if you care about it, you can pass it through a mesh sieve.

  4. To assemble: Set out 4 jelly-style mason jars that hold 8 oz. each. Begin by adding a layer of cookie pieces to each jar, about 4 banana slices, and ¼ cup of custard. Repeat the process and fill the jars to the top. (These can be held in a bath of warm water in a pan on the stove until ready to serve.)

  5. Scoop about ½ cup of meringue onto the top of each filled jar. Using a spoon or spatula, pull up strands of meringue to create a rough, interesting texture. Set desserts on a pan and slip the pan about 4 inches under a hot broiler for a few seconds until the meringue starts to brown, or brown the meringue using a small torch.



Hometown: Haleyville, Alabama

Favorite thing to eat: Alabama heirloom tomatoes and “anything that anybody else cooks.”

Tip for home cooks: “Don’t let cooking intimidate you.” If there is something you want to make, just give it a shot. “You’ll get better with practice.”

Most beloved tool in the kitchen: “My grandmother’s skillets.”