There’s something about banana pudding that sets off an uncanny sense of nostalgia for me. The comforting combination of vanilla custard, sliced bananas, vanilla wafer cookies and often — but not always — fresh whipped cream, reminds me of being a carefree kid on summer vacation. Banana pudding is a sort of trifle, where the ingredients are layered, then chilled so their flavors meld together. It’s sweet and creamy, yet light and fresh — the kind of dessert you can always make room for, even after indulging in a heavy, rich meal.
Banana pudding is an American classic. Although today, it’s often considered an iconic Southern dessert, it likely originated on the East Coast in the 1870s. And it wasn’t until the 1920s that vanilla-flavored, wafer-style cookies, traditionally Nilla brand, replaced sponge cake in the recipe. Today, you’ll find banana pudding on many menus, but in the Bay Area, it’s most commonly found at soul food restaurants and Black-owned bakeries.
I’ve noticed a sort of banana pudding revival bubbling up lately. More restaurants are putting the dessert on their menus, and perhaps, more of us are reaching for it, looking for something comforting that takes us back, if just for a moment, to a time before the one we’re in now.
For the past few weeks, I’ve tried as many versions of the dessert I could find from local restaurants and bakeries in Berkeley and Oakland. Here are some standouts:
Lois the Pie Queen
It took me three tries to finally get my hands on Lois the Pie Queen’s banana pudding (pictured, top). The 70-year-old North Oakland institution, best known for its Southern-style specials, such as fried chicken and pies, was sold out of the pudding on my first two attempts. The second time, I called the restaurant to place an order, but was told a customer had just left the building with the last serving. The staff member explained that Lois’ banana pudding is scratch-made by owner Chris Davis’ wife, and that it’s only available on the weekends, so it sells out quickly.
Not wanting to miss out again, I asked for details to ensure I’d secure a taste. Here’s what she told me: The puddings come in around 4:30 p.m. on Fridays and are usually sold out by Saturday afternoon. And don’t forget to hit the ATM before you arrive — Lois the Pie Queen is cash only.
My third try was successful, and with one bite, I found out why this banana pudding has long been a bestseller. The thick, not overly sweet vanilla custard is combined with plenty of banana slices and Nilla wafers. The cookies soak up, but stay intact in the custard. The cloud of fluffy whipped cream atop, piped on with a star tip, doesn’t just look nice, but cuts some of the sweetness and adds a pleasing lightness to the dessert. The $8 container holds a generous portion, enough to serve two or three — or, just me. Lois the Pie Queen, 851 60th St. (at Adeline Street) Oakland
Co-owners Sylvie Calierno and Jeremy Scheiblauer had the classic American banana cream pudding in mind when they decided to make a version for their North Berkeley lunch spot Fava. They started selling single-serving cups of banana pudding ($6) in early January, and it was such a popular hit amongst customers, that they’ve decided to make it a menu staple.
Calierno told me that Fava’s custard recipe is loosely based on the one in “The Joy of Cooking,” but using all organic, high-quality ingredients, a lot less sugar, a pinch of salt, a tad more butter and perhaps the biggest improvement — vanilla bean, not extract. Fava layers the smooth, creamy vanilla custard with chunks of fresh banana, a couple of Nilla cookies and a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream. Then the whole thing is sprinkled with shredded, toasted coconut, which looks pretty, adds another texture and takes it to the next level. I literally licked the cup clean. Fava, 2114 Vine St., (between Walnut and Shattuck), Berkeley
If Nilla wafers are your favorite part of banana pudding, you’ll love the pudding at longtime Oakland favorite Merritt Bakery, now operating on Lakeshore Avenue. Its banana pudding ($6.30) is chock full of wafers suspended in the thick, canary yellow custard, so every single bite has a taste of the soft, spongey cookie. Because of the abundance of Nilla, I assumed this pudding would be too sweet for my taste, but it was just right, even without a topping of fresh whipped cream to buffer the sweetness. And, I should note, Merritt Bakery’s version had some of the best fresh bananas, which were at peak ripeness. It’s no wonder that when I walked into the Lakeshore Avenue bakery and asked for the dessert, the staffer asked, “How many?” I didn’t buy in bulk that time, but I’ll be tempted the next time I visit. Merritt Bakery, 3355 Lakeshore Ave. (near Mandana Boulevard), Oakland
In early February, Pomella on Piedmont Avenue debuted its banana pudding. I was lucky to try it that week, not only because it sold out, but chef-owner Mica Talmor switched over to chocolate desserts for the rest of February to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Talmor said she’d bring back the pudding in March, and sure enough, it’s been back on the menu since last Thursday.
Pomella’s banana pudding is a standout because every part of it — besides the bananas, of course — are made in-house, including the vanilla wafers. It’s not too sweet, not too heavy and it’s attractively packaged, too. Whole wafers line the perimeter of the container, before alternating layers of vanilla custard, banana chunks and a smooth, light whipped cream fill the container. Cookie shards scattered over the final layer of weightless whipped cream provide the finishing touch. Pomella’s banana pudding ($12) comes in a large container, meant to serve two, but it could easily satisfy three.
Don’t sleep on this one — the banana pudding will only be on the menu through March 11, or until Talmor decides to bring it back again. Pomella, 3770 Piedmont Ave. (at Yosemite Avenue), Oakland
A decadent meal of pitmaster Matt Horn’s savory, smoky meats and rich sides is best followed by a sweet, palate-pleasing — but not too large or heavy — dessert. Horn Barbecue delivers on that front with its banana pudding ($6), which comes in a single-serving cup. Co-owner (and wife of Matt), Nina Horn makes the banana pudding, which she said “is filled with love,” as it’s inspired by her family. “We use the traditional Nilla wafers with our banana pudding. Reminiscent of how Big Mama used to serve it to us growing up.” Freshly whipped cream is incorporated with the sweet custard, banana slices and cookies, before an artful dusting of Nilla crumbs tops the whole thing. The serving is on the small side, so don’t expect to share, but it’s just enough to get a sweet ending without going overboard after indulging in Matt Horn’s heavenly barbecue. Horn Barbecue, 2534 Mandela Parkway (at 26th Street), Oakland
Mise en Place Kitchen
Over the weekend, Mise en Place Kitchen in downtown Berkeley debuted its banana trifle ($6), and I knew I had to try it out, as everything chef-owner Theully Calderwood makes is thoughtfully made, aesthetically pleasing and delicious tasting.
Calderwood said she had a craving for banana pudding and came up with her own version, loosely inspired by one she’s tasted at New York’s Magnolia Bakery. For her trifle, she puts her own stamp with a few simple, but noteworthy tweaks: crumbling the Nilla wafer cookies; making a light, fluffy pastry cream with real vanilla bean; adding banana liqueur and decorating the trifle with swirls of dulce de leche. The portion is large enough to serve two.
Calderwood put the trifle on the weekend-only specials menu and it sold out before she could enjoy a serving herself. She’ll keep the banana trifle on the menu for one more weekend (March 13-14), possibly swapping out crumbled cake for Nilla wafers. Here’s hoping she’ll save a cup for herself this time. Mise en Place Kitchen, 2020 Kittredge St. (between Milvia Street and Shattuck Avenue), Suite C, Berkeley
Gregory’s Gourmet Desserts
Gregory’s Gourmet Desserts is a wholesale bakery in Oakland with a tiny retail store tucked down a short flight of stairs. The bakery could easily be missed if not for the fact that there’s usually a line of eager people waiting outside. The retail space is so small that only one customer (or a pair, if together) can be inside at a time. On my most recent visit, while I was waiting for a couple to finish paying for their sweets, Gregory happened to arrive at the bakery. Feeling giddy and starstruck, I exclaimed with awe, “You’re Gregory!” He smiled and said yes. Fortunately, before he disappeared inside, I had the sense to ask — lest I was waiting for nothing — if the store was stocked with banana pudding that day. He popped his head inside and quickly affirmed I was in luck, adding that recently, a man had bought out his whole lot.
Gregory’s banana pudding ($5.50) comes in a small, plastic container — enough for one or two people — with five Nilla cookies forming a decorative ring at the top and thinly sliced bananas doing the same on the bottom. The custard is smooth and a little thinner than the others I tried, but it works well and tastes fantastic when combined with the softened cookies and fresh fruit. As with Merritt Bakery’s version, Gregory’s does not add a layer of whipped cream. Those who like banana pudding on the sweeter spectrum will appreciate this version. And for an alternative to classic banana pudding, Gregory’s also makes a banana pudding cheesecake. Gregory’s Gourmet Desserts, 285 23rd St. (at Valdez Street), Oakland
Mac and cheese haven Homeroom, in Temescal, offers a variation on the classic banana pudding with its banana cream parfait ($7.99). In addition to vanilla custard, bananas and Nilla wafers, Homeroom adds a layer of the unexpected — salted caramel — to the mix. I liked the caramel, which tasted more like butterscotch, especially combined with light, almost yogurt-like custard. The two Nilla wafers — one placed on top of the pudding and the other on the bottom of the cup — are so soft, they melt in your mouth. Homeroom’s banana pudding is a bit pricey, considering its smaller size, but after a carb-heavy mac and cheese meal, just a few bites of sweetness is all you’ll want and need. Homeroom, 4007 Webster St. (at 40th Street), Oakland
It’s All Good Bakery
Since 1996, It’s All Good Bakery owner Kim Cloud has been serving up his family’s dessert recipes in the building that, years before, served as the Black Panther Party headquarters. It’s All Good’s banana pudding wins for most impressive presentation and biggest bang for your buck. The “small” is $8.50, but it’s the heftiest portion of all the contenders on this list, enough to serve two to four (and an even larger size is available, for bigger appetites or families). I’d recommend this banana pudding for those who like lots of Nilla wafers (including a few that retain their crunch); a sweeter, heavier custard with less vanilla flavor; and a generous amount of whipped cream. It sells out quickly, so be sure to call It’s All Good before heading out. It’s All Good Bakery, 5622 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (at Aileen Street), Oakland
Did I miss your favorite banana pudding? Leave a comment below or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.