Forget pecan pie and divinity. If you're looking for a dessert that tastes like the South, go for banana pudding. There's a reason this simple, sweet dish is a staple at barbecue buffets and church picnics — it's easy to make, cheap, perfect for hot weather, and damn tasty. The traditional recipe layers vanilla-flavored pudding or custard with vanilla wafers, lady-fingers, or pound cake and tops it all off with whipped cream or meringue.
Food historians trace the dish to the late 19th century, when bananas started being imported to Southern states from the Caribbean. One of the earliest recipes is found in Sarah Tyson Rorer's Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book in a section on "Hawaiian recipes," and from there, many Southern cookbook authors published their own variations. Once Nabisco started printing the recipe on the back of their wafer boxes, the dish went mainstream.
In a foodie city like Charleston, you can bet there's no shortage of creative interpretations of banana pudding. If it's basic banana pudding you want, you don't have to look far. Any barbecue joint worth its salt has the dessert on their buffet or in a giant vat in the kitchen, waiting to be scooped and served. J.B.'s Smokeshack, Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, and Gullah Cuisine all use the same basic recipe of sweet vanilla pudding, fresh bananas, and layers of vanilla wafers made soft by the pudding. Jestine's Kitchen is one of the only local spots we found that uses a meringue topping, while the others go for whipped cream or nothing at all. We found a couple of other worthy interpretations of the dish around town. You might not always recognize it, but the flavors will be comfortingly familiar.
Banana Panna Cotta Pudding
$10, Peninsula Grill
112 N. Market St. (843) 723-0700
Peninsula Grill's towering coconut cake has a tendency to steal the spotlight from other treats on the restaurant's dessert menu. But as tasty as the cake is, we're much more impressed with the Banana Panna Cotta Pudding. The dish takes the classic banana pudding to stratospheric heights with a striking look and top-notch ingredients. Pastry chef Claire Chapman uses a circle of banana sheet cake as the base for a dome-shaped serving of panna cotta, which is encased in milk chocolate ganache. A crunchy banana-shaped wafer sits on top, with a spun sugar halo wrapped around one end. It's finished off with a generous pouring of Tia Maria caramel sauce and caramelized slices of bananas. The dish's numerous elements make each bite unique — a sticky-sweet banana slice with wafer here, a silky spoonful of panna cotta with the crunch of spun sugar there. The result is a dessert that never gets boring.
Famous Fried Banana Pudding
$5, Hubee D's
975 Savannah Hwy. (843) 556-0330
Over the last year, Charleston has gotten more than its share of new chicken finger restaurants, but Hubee D's sets itself apart with a dessert that's earned some passionate followers. Their "famous" fried banana pudding, which we wrote about last fall, was created by Hubee D's co-owner Dana Sinkler. Inspired by fried fair food, he went through several rounds of experimentation before settling on the final product, which he calls a deconstructed banana pudding. Chunks of bananas are surrounded with batter and fried then tossed in a pool of cool, creamy vanilla pudding. It's topped off with crispy vanilla wafers, caramel and chocolate sauces, and powdered sugar. The dish is both warm and refreshing, crunchy and gooey.
$6, Glass Onion
1219 Savannah Hwy. (843) 225-1717
West Ashley restaurant the Glass Onion is known for serving Deep South favorites like po' boys, fried chicken livers, gumbo, and deviled eggs. We're in love with their dessert menu, and Sarah O'Kelley's banana pudding is always a solid pick. The G.O. chef and co-owner gives the dish a Georgian spin with classic ingredients and a kiss of chocolate. Homemade vanilla pudding is layered with Nabisco Nilla Wafers and fresh bananas then topped with fresh whipped cream and chocolate sauce, and it's all served in a "sizeable" crock pot. Just make sure to call ahead before you stop in to quell your puddin' cravings — the menu changes daily.