Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding is iconic. You’ve probably seen it piled high in a paper cup on your Instagram feed. And if you haven’t tasted it yourself, you’ve at least gawked at the line stretching down the block outside of one of its seven locations in NYC, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
All it takes is bananas, pudding, whipped cream, cookies, and a little layering magic, so what makes this simple dessert worth standing in line for? I figured the masterminds at Magnolia must lace the pudding with some impossible-to-find ingredient or sprinkle signature spices into the whipped cream to make it irreparably delicious. But I sat down with Chief Baking Officer Bobbie Lloyd to get her signature recipe, and it turns out, it’s easier than I could have ever imagined.
“Baking is so precise and you’ve got to be careful because of the chemistry,” Lloyd explained. “But with banana pudding, it really is just about the assembly of the ingredients and how much you use in each layer.”
This Southern dessert was a “sleeper hit” at Magnolia because past crews didn’t make that much of it and it would sell out every day. Once Lloyd took over the bakery, she recognized that it was a customer (and employee) favorite, so she upped production and couldn’t keep the dessert in stock—no matter how much she made.Over the years, she’s carefully considered each part of the banana pudding from the ripeness of the bananas to how long it takes for the Nilla wafers to soften just enough that they fold seamlessly into the dish. You should make sure to use bananas that are yellow with small brown flecks and allow your layered creation to sit in the fridge for at least four hours before serving if you’re going to recreate this at home.
Lloyd said there’s really only one way to mess up her signature recipe. The most labor-intensive step is whipping your own whipped cream. It’s easy to do with a mixer, but if you think you’re going to rely on good old-fashioned elbow grease to whip it yourself like I did, you might want to think again. Under-whipped cream is the one mistake Lloyd has seen over and over again, and it results in a soupy end product that won’t have the rich texture you’re expecting. It’s a simple fix, though. As you see your whipped cream come together, lift the mixer out of the bowl and if you see a stiff peak, Lloyd said you’re ready to go.
The fun part comes once you’ve mastered the base recipe. Magnolia Bakery has about two dozen flavors of banana pudding and they rotate in a new specialty flavor each month, so you can put the same creative spin on your banana pudding at home.“There are a few ways to impart flavor,” Lloyd explained. So when she’s dreaming up new flavors for the famous recipe, she thinks of it in three parts: pudding, cookies, and mix-ins. “When you’re making the pudding base itself you can switch up the liquid. The pudding base we use is water and sweetened condensed milk, but if you change that water to dark coffee, you’ve got java, or if you change it to dulce de leche, you’ve got a caramel flavored base.”
Then, think about the cookies. Magnolia Bakery sells chocolate banana pudding year-round that swaps Nilla wafer cookies for Oreos, but you could also go with gingersnaps or any other cookie that’s dry and hard, Lloyd said. The shop also started introducing cake to the banana pudding layers, so you could go that route too.
Finally, you can make the basic recipe and simply add mix-ins to switch it up. “With mix-ins alone you have a million options,” she said, and one of her favorites is a simple peanut butter banana pudding with melted peanut butter swirled in each layer. As a huge fan of varying texture, she also suggested adding things like candy pieces, toasted coconut, chocolate covered pretzels, or any other snack you like that has a nice crunch.
“It’s the one dessert that everyone can make,” Lloyd said, so there’s no excuse not to dive into the classic recipe or personalize it with your favorite flavors.
How to make the basic banana pudding recipe at home:
1. In a medium-sized bowl whisk together sweetened condensed milk and cold water.
2. Place the pudding mix in another medium-sized bowl and slowly whisk in the liquid, whisking until there are no lumps and the mixture is smooth, about 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate until firm (at least one hour or overnight).
3. In a mixer bowl with the whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream on medium speed for about a minute until the cream starts to thicken, then increase the speed to medium high and whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Be careful not to over whip.
4. Carefully add the pudding mixture to the whipped cream and mix on low speed until well blended and no streaks of pudding remain.
5. To assemble, select either a trifle bowl or wide glass bowl with a 4- to 5-quart capacity. Saving 4 to 5 cookies for the garnish on top, begin assembly. Spread one-quarter of the pudding over the bottom and layer with one-third of the cookies and one-third of the sliced bananas (enough to cover the layer). Repeat the layering twice more. End with a final layer of pudding. Garnish the top with additional cookies or cookie crumbles.
6. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours. The cookies should be tender when poked with a knife. It’s best served within 12 hours of assembling.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Liz Provencher is an associate editor at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter or see what she eats on Instagram.