DURANGO, Colo., 23 July, 2017 — Banana pudding is an American classic, and especially popular in the South. It’s usually trashy—I say that in the nicest possible way—and simple: A box of vanilla wafers, a box of instant pudding, a couple of bananas, near-instant bliss.
If it’s for company, you might make the pudding from scratch, assemble it with the bananas and vanilla wafers, then top it all with meringue and brown it under the broiler. Perhaps you use swirls of whipped cream instead of the meringue; It’s dressed up, but still homey and satisfying.
But then Merlene, feeling mean and spiteful, comes to the church social and sees your banana pudding sitting there in its coat of spooned and spiked meringue and says, “bless your heart, that looks so sweet” and plops her own banana pudding down next to yours. And she made her own vanilla
And she made her own vanilla wafers and piped the meringue just so, and artfully arranged cookies and bananas around the edge of her prettiest bowl, and hers is all gone while your meringue leaks sweaty little beads of moisture onto your pudding and shrinks from the edges of your old Pyrex cooking dish.
That’s the banana pudding that Durango’s Fifth Street Eatery brings to the party. But let’s back up to see how a remarkable mid-day snack reached such a remarkable denouement.
It started, as so much on this trip has, with Harlan, my 16-year-old son. He wanted to go shopping for a visor and a Durango t-shirt. With the perfect self-centeredness that comes so naturally to teenagers, he assumed that if we went shopping, we’d only go to t-shirt stores. So when he found out that Lisa and I had our own shopping agenda, he was aggrieved. “Why are you going in there? No, stop, not this store! Come on, I don’t want to waste my vacation in galleries. No, not a book store! We didn’t come all the way to Durango to go to a book store!”
“Why are you going in there? No, stop, not this store! Come on, I don’t want to waste my vacation in galleries. No, not a book store! We didn’t come all the way to Durango to go to a book store!”
But there it was, a second-hand bookstore, as irresistible to bibliophiles as a full dumpster is to bears. Lisa wanted to dive in head first. Fourteen-year-old Catherine decided she could entertain herself by sitting on the front porch of the bookstore painting her nails with her new, change-color-in-the-sunlight nail polish. Harlan let out a strangled cry of anguish.
“Harlan, look, why don’t you sit down in there”—”there” was a restaurant in a nondescript little house next door to the bookstore, with a sign that promised cupcakes and chicken—“and have something to eat while we look at books?” It turns out that a lot of Harlan’s disagreeableness is hunger due to his body’s rush to go from almost short to almost tall. Waving some chicken at him settled him down.
It turns out that a lot of Harlan’s disagreeableness is hunger due to his body’s rush to go from almost short to almost tall. Waving some chicken at him settled him down. I went in with him and told the man behind the counter, “feed him whatever he wants. I’ll be back to pay for it in a half hour.”
The bookstore was chaotic and claustrophobic. It’s the sort of place where you know there are treasures to be found if you’re willing to wiggle your way through the stacks of books, do some crawling, and risk broken bones or death when one of the lopsided, over-loaded bookshelves falls on top of you. But I realized I wasn’t really in the mood. I felt like I’d gone to a bar and left my kids in the car.
I told Lisa to keep on looking, then asked Catherine whether she’d like to come with me to join Harlan. She gave me that teenage girl look and snidely polished another nail. Suddenly I wanted to go to a bar and leave her in the car.
Harlan had a mug of lemonade in front of him and a plate of fried chicken and garlic mashed potatoes. I took a sip of his lemonade. Definitely not from a mix. Fresh, tart, intensely lemony, it was as good as my own. I ran to the counter for a menu.
I ordered cheese grits, a biscuit, and a mug of lemonade. The grits were creamy and cheesy, as good as any I’ve had in Louisiana. The biscuit was huge, buttery, light and perfect. I grabbed a piece of Harlan’s fried chicken. I’ve had better, but not at a restaurant.
The menu listed banana pudding and cobbler as the desserts. “Sorry, we’re out of cobbler, but the banana pudding is pretty good,” I ordered it, and Merlene’s mean and spiteful banana pudding showed up and made me feel bad about mine. Real bad. I’m-never-making-another-banana-pudding bad. There was a slight caramel flavor to the pudding, which had a firmer consistency than your standard pudding.
The home-made vanilla wafers held their crunch, not turning into that mush you usually find under the yellow glop at a church-social.
We have another day or two in Durango. I’m going back to try the cobbler.
Heading out to Ouray, Colorado
“Look out your window, Harlan.”
Harlan isn’t easily impressed, but today he looked at his own mortality, managed his “oh, gosh,” and stared out his window in horrified fascination.
Colorado state highway 550 between Silverton and Ouray was named by the Travel Channel as one of America’s ten most dangerous highways. The first time I took my wife to Ouray, she left her fingerprints in the car’s armrest. At one point, the rock face comes down to one side of the two-lane road, and beyond the white line on the other side is the void. There’s no shoulder, no guard rail, no place to pull over if your tire goes flat, no place to swerve if a tanker truck is coming down the opposite lane and spilling slightly into your lane.
There’s no shoulder, no guard rail, no place to pull over if your tire goes flat, no place to swerve if a tanker truck is coming down the opposite lane and spilling slightly into your lane.
“Oh, gosh” indeed.
That’s not why the highway is dangerous. It’s dangerous because of falling rocks. Every once in a while, an enormous boulder will drop from that rock face and crush whatever hapless thing is below. Fortunately, that’s usually just the road, but every once in a while it’s a bus full of religious pilgrims.
To take his mind off the highway, Harlan looked through a visitor’s guide for places to eat if we made it to Ouray. He’s always hungry these days, but still picky. “Timberline Deli,” he finally announced. “Coffee, donuts, burgers, desserts, ice cream, sandwiches and wifi.” The wifi part was important; his unreasonable parents still haven’t purchased an unlimited data plan and have limited him to 1GB of data on his phone every month. The lack of wifi and poor phone service on much of this trip have devoured his data.
The wifi part was important; his unreasonable parents still haven’t purchased an unlimited data plan and have limited him to 1GB of data on his phone every month. The lack of wifi and poor phone service on much of this trip have devoured his data.
More about Ouray (and Silverton) later. We shopped for a visor (that stupid visor has obsessed Harlan since Santa Fe), went to a rock shop (Catherine loved the sparkly things; Harlan stood outside searching for a free wifi signal), then went to the Timberline Deli.
It was raining heavily at this point, so the outdoor patio was out. We looked at the printed menu and at the burger menu on the wall. Harlan wanted a chocolate-ice cream float and a burger with an egg and bacon. Catherine wanted a hotdog. Lisa ordered the Elvis burger (don’t ask me why it was called the “Elvis burger”; there wasn’t a speck of peanut butter or banana on it, but only avocado and three cheeses), and I ordered a New Mexico burger (green chilis and cheese).
Then we sat and waited. And waited.
“It doesn’t take this long at Sonic,” Catherine remarked. “And those are really good burgers.”
“These are probably thicker, and they’re cooking them fresh,” said Lisa. But I could tell she was starting to feel doubts herself. We waited some more.
But I could tell she was starting to feel doubts herself. We waited some more.
Finally the burgers came. They were worth the wait. The chilis on mine joined the cheese and thick, juicy beef patty in a gooey, dripping symphony. The french fries were fresh. I never eat my french fries, but I ate most of these. Lisa detests pickles. As soon as our food came came, she banished the pickle in her basket to mine with a sound of disgust. Her loss. It was a good pickle. Probably from a jar, but from a very good jar. Lisa and Harlan devoured their burgers while Catherine stole fries from our baskets and looked bored.
Lisa and Harlan devoured their burgers while Catherine stole fries from our baskets and looked bored.
Harlan had chosen well. The Timberline Deli isn’t a great restaurant, but it is pleasant, the people who work there are friendly and cheerful, and the burgers are solid. We headed back for Durango in the rain with that pleasant feeling of being full of good food. As we drove inches from the abyss, I asked Harlan whether he wants to go back to Ouray. “No!” he screamed. “What kind of father takes his family on a road like this in the rain?! We should have stayed in Durango!”
“No!” he screamed. “What kind of father takes his family on a road like this in the rain?! We should have stayed in Durango!”
I don’t know what his problem was. He went down a gold mine, found a visor, had an excellent hamburger, and he didn’t die.
That sounds like a pretty good day to me.
Bannana Pudding with homemade vanilla wafers
This recipe calls for homemade vanilla wafers, with their extra vanilla and slightly salty taste that pairs well with the creamy pudding. But you can use a box of ‘Nilla wafers if you prefer the ease.
Yield: 8 approximately 1-cup puddings or one 8×8 inch glass baking dish or other two-quart dishe.
3⁄4 cup (150 grams) organic granulated sugar
1⁄4 cup (35 grams) cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
6 large free range egg yolks
3 1⁄2 cups (830 ml) whole organic milk
2 tablespoons (30 grams) organic butter, cut into a few bits
1 tablespoon (15 ml) real vanilla extract
1 tablespoon (15 ml) dark rum (optional, but think it has an amazing impact here)
1 cup (200 grams) organic granulated sugar
Seeds from 1/2 of a fresh vanilla bean
1/2 cup (115 grams) unsalted organic butter, softened
1 large egg
1 tablespoon (15 ml) real vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/3 cups (176 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup organic heavy cream
2 teaspoons organic granulated sugar
4 large firm-ripe bananas, thinly sliced
Custard: Whisk sugar, cornstarch, salt, and yolks together in the bottom of a large saucepan. Drizzle in milk, continually whisking.
Place the pot over medium heat and bring to a brisk simmer, constantly stirring, four to seven minutes, until custard thickens. Remove from heat; whisk in butter, vanilla, and rum. Let the custard sit until room temperature (if you put in fridge covered while hot, condensation will form and ruin the custard), transfer to a bowl, cover and let chill in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight to finish thickening. Yield is 4 cups custard.
Wafers: Heat oven to 350°F. In the bottom of a large bowl, combine sugar and vanilla beans. Extract extra flavor from the vanilla beans by rubbing them between your (very clean) hands with a bit of sugar. The friction helps to release the vanilla oils and flavor.
Add the butter and beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla, fold to combine. Sprinkle baking powder and salt over batter, fold to combine.
Add flour and once again, fold just to combine.
Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick baking mats. Using your tiniest scoop (a melon baller works well), scoop the dough and space at least 2 inches apart on prepared sheets. It is easiest to work with dough when it is chilled.
Bake 10 to 11 minutes, keeping a close eye on the cookies. You’ll want them to be nicely golden at the edges before you take them out. Let cool on racks.
Yield: About 80 1 3/4-inch cookies.
Construct your pudding in individual cups or in a large bowl, layering custard, bananas, and cookies. Add some edible purple flowers, meringue or candy bananas.
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