One time, I made a guy cry with pudding. I am not exaggerating or speaking metaphorically. We were at a birthday party for a mutual friend, and I'd made a bowl of this banana pudding for dessert, per the birthday girl's request. He took one bite, put a hand to his chest, and looked up with tears in his eyes. "I'm crying," he said, visibly shocked by his own reaction. "I just...the pudding. I'm actually crying." I nodded, semi-stunned myself.
In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been all that surprised. I've never shed a tear myself over a dessert — but if it ever happens, it will most certainly be over this pudding. Since that night, I've been asked to make it for dozens of occasions, including a friend's wedding, and birthday parties galore. A few months ago, my friend's mother-in-law asked me to share the recipe since pregnant daughter-in-law was craving it like mad. That's when I had to break the news that the recipe isn't mine. Indeed, it hails from a very different kitchen from my own: Magnolia Fucking Bakery.
Magnolia F. Bakery, as you know, has long been associated with Sex and the City and cupcakes, and is the reason we now have reality shows devoted to that entirely unremarkable dessert. No one I know actually likes Magnolia's painfully sweet, battery cupcakes. Then one day, my boss at the time asked me to go get in line at the mecca of cupcakes to pick up an order.
"Forget the cupcakes," my boss instructed. "We want the banana pudding."
"Oh. Okay. How much should I get?"
She paused, then sort of shook her head as if there was no limit, no amount of this great pudding that would ever be too much.
"As much as you can carry."
Cut to: a bajillion hours of waiting or so later. When I finally made it inside the tiny storefront on Bleecker Street, jammed with tourists, the air thick with buttercream, I spied the mellow yellow bowl of banana pudding in the display case and shouted for an order of several large containers. My boss had spoken of this stuff as if it was the grace of god, and I just had to see for myself. I ordered an extra individual cup of pudding and took a bite.
It was one of those moments when everything freezes; your brain shifts into a kind of panic mode because it doesn't know how to handle all this new and overwhelming data. I have a visceral memory of where I was when I took that bite of pudding: The heat of the day, the color of the sidewalk, the clipboard guy down the block waiting for me to walk by so he could ask if I had a minute for the environment. But I wasn't going anywhere. Me and my pudding were the still point of the turning world.
Here, I'd like to pause and say that I'm generally not a food fetishist. I believe our cultural instinct to photograph, filter, and post every bite we take on social media contributes to an unhealthy relationship with something that's meant to be eaten and enjoyed — not worshipped. But I do like this pudding: It is incredibly light and fluffy, not so much like pudding but an aerated cream. At the same time, it's densely flavorful. If you make the rookie mistake of going for seconds (and you will) it hits you in the gut like a sucker punch. But even as you fall to the floor, defeated, you will know in your heart it was worth it.
That same day, I found the recipe online and was scandalized to discover the ingredient list includes nothing you won't find at any corner deli: sweetened condensed milk, Nilla wafers, Jell-O vanilla pudding mix, bananas, and cream — so, so much cream. Making the dish is as easy as...pudding. You whisk the condensed milk with the pudding mix and some ice water, then leave it to chill in the fridge for at least four hours. (I let it chill overnight.) Next, you whip up the aforementioned shit-ton of heavy cream and fold the pudding into it until you have a big, fluffy, light-yellow cloud. Then, you simply spread the stuff in between layers of Nilla wafers and banana slices in a large glass bowl. Cover and stick it in the fridge for another couple hours before serving.
There's only one rule when it comes to making this pudding well: Don't fuck with it. Don't get fancy and try to jazz it up with extra vanilla or ladyfingers. You will regret it, and your people will revolt. Just do what Magnolia tells you to do (I'd heavily caution you to use their cookbook rather than find the recipe online, just in case). It's worth noting that this style of banana pudding is a classic American recipe and I'm sure your grandma's version is great, but no, sorry, it's not the best. I don't know which Magnolia staffer's soul got sold to Satan for this recipe, but I'm forever grateful for their sacrifice.
The truth is, I don't make the pudding that often anymore, because though it's simple, it does take time. When I first discovered the pudding I was a semi-employed twentysomething. But the older I get, the more occupied I am with things like my relationships, my career — things that are just a little more important than dessert. But sometimes, passing Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street, I think back on that birthday party on a sweaty June night, a bunch of semi-employed friends drinking beer in a railroad apartment.
I think of that guy taking a bite of pudding off his paper plate and looking up with red eyes and a lump in his throat: "I just...the pudding." I'm momentarily seduced by a thought something along the lines of, Ah, to be young again. Then I see the line on Bleecker Street wrapped around the corner and think, Oh wait, never mind.