My history of trying to please Niece Two dates back to the first time I baked her birthday cupcakes when she turned one. She couldn’t have been less interested and essentially I decided then and there that it would be my job to lure her over to the sweet side no matter what. But as in so many relationships, it’s been a sort of one step forward, two steps back. Just when I think I’ve “won” (as in the cupcakes I made for her 4th birthday), she spits out something else I’ve made and I’m right back where I started. Rather than giving up I become more determined to unlock the key to her palate with a treat so perfect she never rejects me again.
I was sure I had her figured out when she recently announced how much she loves bananas. After she was done doing a pitch-perfect imitation of a monkey (easy when you are flexible and weigh 30 pounds), I asked her what she thought would be the best thing we could make with them. Part of me still feels terrible guilt over the allergic reaction she had when we baked banana nut muffins last summer and I thought if we made a sweet together I’d be able to cleanse myself of my rash inducing sin. “Banana cupcakes?” Nah. “Banana bread?” She shook her head. “Banana pudding?” “Yes!!!” she cried. “That would be so yummy!” I believed her and took to researching the perfect recipe.
At this point it is significant to note that personally, I don’t really love bananas, or monkeys for that matter. It also bears repeating that my goal when choosing a fruit is to have a juicy experience, not a creamy, mushy one that leaves me thirsty. So you know love was making me blind (and selfless ) when I offered to create a dessert I have completely ignored every time I have been in Magnolia bakery over the last 15 years where the bowl of Nilla Wafer-ed pudding sits front and center in the refrigerated display case. I should also add that the banana baked goods I have made, and enjoyed , in the past are often created because of a surplus of bananas in my mother’s kitchen that are about to be past their prime. Rather than eating them, I bake with them. But in this instance the recipe required me to actually purchase a bunch in order just to make the pudding. Anything for love. Or winning. Or both.
So last weekend when the rest of my family went to visit a friend’s baby pig, I set about cooking the vanilla pudding that was to form the base of Niece Two’s made-to-order dessert. I have to say, making pudding is incredibly satisfying—as you stir and stir what had been milk, sugar, a vanilla bean and egg yolks miraculously turns thick, rich, and creamy. Plus your kitchen smells like heaven. By the time the pudding had cooled to lukewarm Niece Two had returned and after a hand washing order issued by her aunt, we started to assemble our creation. Using all-natural and completely nut-free Mi-Del Vanilla Snaps instead of Nilla Wafers, and allowing her to cut the bananas (the knife was dull and harm-free), put a smile on my niece’s face. We both thought it looked amazing when we placed it in the fridge to chill overnight.
I was fully confident in our efforts and when the time came to spoon out the pudding at lunch in the back yard the next day, I was completely prepared to sit back and bask in the glory of her swooning. You know where this is going. I don’t think an entire spoonful made it into her tiny (yet somehow capable of immense verbiage and volume) mouth before she dramatically let her head drop to the table and said into her place mat, “I hate it.” I was crestfallen. Not even the kudos from my Southern-born (and therefore banana pudding familiar) brother-in-law helped soften the blow. Even when Niece One smiled a big pudding grin and chirped “this is SOOO good”, the dent to my wounded ego was not repaired.
And so I kicked into my people pleaser mode. “You don’t like the pudding? What do you want instead?” I offered. “A blueberry popsicle,” she said firmly. I ran inside and pulled one from the freezer. Two licks later she gave me such a pained look and groaned, “it’s making my back hurt.” “Alright, how about a cookie? Grandma bought chocolate Oreos.” “Okay,” she responded flatly. I ran back into the kitchen again and brought her a plate of Newman’s version of America’s favorite cookies. One bite later and it was “I don’t really want this. I want ice cream.” And so for the third time I high-tailed it inside and returned with an individual cup of Haagen-Dazs vanilla with the built-in spoon. At last, Goldilocks was satisfied.
And here’s the thing. I realized that she was doing what I always do, except I have the ability to hunt, gather and prepare for myself. My kitchen often looks like a mouse has been picnicking—Milanos are missing a bite or two, Carr’s Whole Wheat Crackers sit crumbled in their box, ginger snaps purchased to satisfy a long forgotten craving grow stale in a container. And that’s just the cabinet. Open the freezer and you’ll find a container of Breyer’s Vanilla (into which I crumbled my last two Girl Scout Thin Mints) with the tracks of a mindlessly wandering tea-spoon as well as an open box of Junior Mints with only two “very refreshing” candies left shivering.In other words, I bite and reject as much as Niece Two does, searching for the right treat to hit my sweet spot until I find it.
I wish I could say I could give up this neurotic pattern but I know I won’t. As the aunt it’s not my job to say things like, “Fine. If you don’t want your pudding you don’t have to have anything else!” It’s my pleasure to keep trying in the hopes that one day I get it right on the first try. But yes, I’ll keep the freezer stocked with individual ice cream cups—but I have to remember, she now wants strawberry.
People Pleaser Banana Pudding
from Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family, Art Smith 2001
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3 cups milk
2 vanilla beans , split lengthwise
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
Pinch of salt
6 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter , cut up
12 ounces vanilla wafers
5 ripe bananas , peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar (optional--I thought the pudding was sweet enough without the extra sugar)
Bring the milk and vanilla beans to a simmer in a medium saucepan over low heat. Using tongs, remove the beans from the milk. Using the tip of a small sharp knife, scrape the tiny seeds from each bean back into the milk.
Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium bowl. Add the egg yolks and whisk well.
Gradually whisk in about half of the hot milk, then pour the yolk mixture into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the pudding comes to a full boil.
Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter until melted. Transfer to a medium bowl. Cover the pudding with a piece of plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface and pierce a few holes in the wrap with the tip of a knife. Let stand until tepid, about 30 minutes.
Spoon about 1 cup of the pudding into a 2- to 2 1/2-quart glass bowl. Layer the cookies, bananas and pudding in the bowl, ending with the pudding.
Cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight.
Whip the cream (and optional confectioners' sugar) in a chilled medium bowl until stiff. Spread the whipped cream over the pudding.
Serve chilled, spooned into bowls.
Yield: 8 servings