When my editor tweeted a pitch for casseroles, I lapsed into snark mode. “I was raised on soul food,” I muttered. “Casseroles are not soul food.” I was wrong. My favourite dessert — banana pudding — is a quintessential soul food dessert. It is also a casserole both in method and receptacle.
Typically, banana pudding is not baked in an oven, though it can go into an oven briefly if topped with meringue. The pudding so essential to the dessert is carefully stirred on top of the stove, or poured from a package, if the cook uses a true instant pudding. But the pudding is layered with vanilla wafers, pudding, and banana slices.
The receptacle, however, is as important to the definition of casserole as the technique is. Adrian Miller, the lawyer who wrote the James Beard Award-winning book “Soul Food,” defines a casserole as “any layered baked dish.” “Some people define it by the container… that classic Pyrex bowl,” he says. “But to me, it’s any kind of layered, baked dish especially that has a cream element.”
Miller mentions a couple of iconic “soul food” dishes that could be considered casseroles. Mashed sweet potatoes would qualify if topped with brown sugar, marshmallows and walnuts. Oven-baked macaroni and cheese is another casserole, and soul food staple, he notes. “You could argue that some versions of macaroni and cheese are a casserole, If you make that Sunday version.”
While researching his book, Miller came across numerous casserole recipes in cookbooks by and for African Americans. He found casseroles in “The Ebony Cookbook,” a reprint of “A Date With A Dish,” written in 1948 by Ebony magazine food editor Freda DeKnight. But Miller says casserole recipes appeared earlier than the 1940s. “As early as the 1910s, you see casserole recipes,” he says. “I’ve seen them as late as the 1990s.”
So why did I think casseroles were #SoWhite? I fell for a stereotype: that soul food is the sole food of African American cuisine. Miller and other food scholars point out that “soul food” is a relatively recent moniker for African American food. The term grew in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, they say, when the word “soul” became a synonym the African-American experience. Just as people talked about “soul music,” they talked about “soul food.”
Casseroles may not technically be soul food, but they are African American cuisine, says food scholar Toni Tipton-Martin. She wrote the “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cooking.” The book, which won a James Beard Foundation award in 2016.
Tipton-Martin argues for two lines of African-American cuisine: the home-cooking of “soul food,” and the professional creations of trained chefs. Both come out of slavery, she says, but the survival recipes figure more prominently in discussion of the African-American culinary heritage. “We have totally forgotten there were people who were trained professionally to be the plantation cook,” Tipton-Martin says.
Such cooks would have had a repertoire of dishes and techniques to draw from. The Jemima Code is an anthology of Tipton-Martin’s collection of African-American cookbooks. They date to 1827, and she’s found numerous references to casseroles as food and cookware.
My recipe is inspired by ladies from my church. Originally, the dessert called for homemade boiled custard, but all my church ladies use instant banana pudding. My compromise came from the international foods aisle of my local Walmart. I found Foster Clark’s custard powder, an unsweetened base made with cornstarch. It lets me control the amount of sugar, without worrying about making custard in a double-boiler. If Foster Clark’s isn’t available, use cook-and-serve vanilla pudding. Add banana extract to taste.
Many traditional recipes top the dessert with a meringue. It’s not a personal favourite, so I used fresh strawberries. Finishing with a meringue requires a short time in the oven, in which the pudding becomes a true casserole: layered ingredients with a cream sauce baked in the oven. The recipe below yields four hearty servings.
Afi’s Banana Pudding Casserole
3 tablespoons custard powder
950 mL half cream
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons banana extract
3 to 4 medium-sized, ripe but firm bananas, sliced
1 box vanilla wafers
2 or 3 strawberries for garnish (optional)
Cinnamon for dusting
3 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar
Using a small strainer, sift custard powder into a large mixing bowl. Pour in four tablespoons half cream, and whisk thoroughly until mixture resembles a smooth gravy. Mix sugar and remaining half cream in a saucepan.
Heat, stirring constantly, until small bubbles form in the liquid. Pour the hot liquid into the custard mixture, whisking to prevent lumps. Pour the custard mixture in the saucepan and return to the heat.
Whisk constantly until the custard thickens, about two or three minutes. Take off heat and whisk banana extract into the custard.
Pour a thin layer of custard in a casserole dish. Working quickly, alternate layers of wafers and bananas and custard, unless you would rather top it with a fluffy meringue, in which case skip to the next paragraph.
Top the final layer of custard with wafers and bananas. Slice strawberries lengthwise into quarters. Garnish the pudding as desired. Dust lightly with cinnamon. Cover and refrigerate until set.
Using a mixer, beat egg whites and cream of tartar until the egg whites foam. Slowly add sugar, and continue beating until whites form stiff peaks. Spread meringue on top of cooled pudding, spreading to the edges of the dish. Use the back of a spoon to make small decorations.
Bake for 15 minutes in a 180 degree oven, until edges of meringue brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.