For its amazingly high pleasure-to-work ratio, this dessert has most others beat. It is a totally unfashionable vestige of the old South, the kind of dessert you might find at those wonderful cafeterias: banana slices layered with a vanilla custard, vanilla wafers, and meringue. The way these ingredients fall together into a dreamy, creamy, utterly seductive whole is simply astonishing. Now, you could work a lot harder on this thing—by making your own custard, even making your own vanilla wafers. But the following recipe—given to me by a friend from the South whose family makes it all the time and calls it nanner pudding—beats any hard-work "gourmet" version I've ever tried. So break out the Nabisco wafers and the Jell-O—and remember that cooks should be judged only by how good their cooking tastes.
1 (12-ounce) box Nabisco Nilla wafers
2 boxes Jell-O vanilla pudding (not instant)
4 cups milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 very ripe bananas (make sure they have brown specks on the skin)
1/2 cup plus 1/8 cup raw, unbeaten egg whites (from about half a dozen eggs), room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1. Line the bottom and the sides of an 8 by 8 by 2-inch baking dish (about 2-quart capacity) - oven safe and nonreactive - with a layer of the vanilla wafers. They should just cover the bottom of the dish.
2. Prepare the vanilla pudding according to the pudding directions on the package (you will need the 4 cups of milk to do this). While the pudding is still hot, stir in the nutmeg; set the pudding aside to cool for 5 minutes (but no longer).
3. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
4. Peel 2 of the bananas and slice them into rounds that are 3/8 inch thick. Top the layer of cookies in the bottom of the dish with the banana slices. Top the banana slices with a second layer of vanilla wafers. Peel the remaining 2 bananas, slice them into rounds, and distribute them evenly on top of the second cookie layer. For the final layer, top those bananas with another layer of cookies.
5. Pour the still-warm pudding over all. Shake the dish carefully, and tap it on the counter, to remove any air holes within the layers.
6. Make the meringue. Add the egg whites, sugar, vanilla extract, and lemon juice to the medium-size bowl of a standard kitchen mixer with the whisk attachment. Whisk the mixture on medium speed until it just holds a peak. It should be light and fluffy; do not overmix it.
7. Using a rubber spatula, top the entire surface of the pudding evenly with the meringue. Dip a spoon into the surface of the meringue and pull it out quickly to create little peaks all over the top of the pudding.
8. Place the pudding on the top rack of the oven. Bake just until it is nicely browned on top, about 3 minutes. (It can burn very easily, so watch it carefully.) Remove the pudding from the oven and let it cool down for 1 hour on the countertop. Then place in refrigerator and chill for at least 3 hours, but not more than 5 hours.
Adapted from It's All American Food by David Rosengarten (Little, Brown 2003).
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