Banana pudding is one of those foods that I think few of us grow up eating a lot of but that is somehow indelibly imprinted into the food culture as something everyone has tried at least once. Most of us probably have had the “classic” version composed of instant vanilla pudding, sliced bananas, and Nilla wafers. That version is delicious, but not exactly in line with the current trend toward less-processed and more homemade foods. Nevertheless, a national affection for it still exists, at least evidenced by its reappearance on many restaurant dessert menus, often rendered in a way more acceptable to those of us drinking Michael Pollan’s Kool-Aid*.
*Kool-Aid made from naturally colored and flavored fruit powder and organic, natural cane sugar, of course.
This banana pudding resurgence, served up in mason jars in hipster food centers and churned up at the local ice cream shop, seems to have made it all the way to Waco, Texas, where my friend Chelsea tried what she claimed was the best banana pudding of her life. Sadly, being lactose intolerant, she could only have a bite of it, and when she told me about it, she challenged me to create a non-dairy version for her. Not being vegan or lactose-intolerant**, and with no need to convince myself that non-dairy pudding is JUST LIKE THE REAL THING, my attempts at creating a dairy-free banana pudding only convinced me that it is something I want no part of.
**(Anymore.) A brief 5-year run of lactose-intolerance in my teens makes me at least appreciative of its challenges and uh, discomforts.
But, I didn’t want to give up on her challenge. I remembered banana pudding ice cream, and I thought any textural problems with the pudding might be improved by freezing and turning this into a non-dairy ice cream instead. While I was throwing this idea around my brain, I read Sara Britton’s My New Roots cookbook and realized that she had basically already created the perfect banana-flavored ice cream base for me! Best of all, her version didn’t involve any weird added thickeners or soymilk, just a brilliant blend of bananas and raw cashews. I’ve made raw cheesecake in the past with an ice-cream like texture, so I was pretty convinced cashews were the answer. I could just add more banana and nilla wafers to the base and I would have a frozen banana pudding, sans dairy.
The end result is definitely icier than a dairy-based ice cream, but the cashews give it a pleasant chew and creaminess and the bananas give it that, well, banana flavor. Cooking the bananas in the puree helps keep them softer when frozen by removing excess water and adding sugar and fat, plus the caramel cools to create little candy shards that are fun to find in your ice cream. Most importantly, the flavor is spot-on to the pudding served up at your last family reunion in Georgia, with no need to fight over who gets to lick the bowl.
(also delicious with whipped cream if you don't need to stick to the whole non-dairy thing)
Dairy-Free Banana Pudding Ice Cream
Ice cream base adapted from My New Roots
For the ice cream:
2 cups raw cashews, soaked overnight
3 ripe bananas, cut into chunks and frozen solid
1 vanilla bean
pinch of sea salt
1/2 cup + 1 tbs maple syrup
1 tbsp coconut oil, melted
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Caramelized banana swirl (recipe below)
15-20 Nilla wafers, broken into pieces (store bought or homemade, see note)
For the caramelized banana swirl:
1 banana, sliced
1 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs coconut oil
- Make the caramelized banana swirl. In a small bowl, toss together banana and sugar and stir to coat. Heat coconut oil in a small skillet over medium high heat. Add the bananas and cook until they begin to break down and sugar begins to caramelize. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Make the ice cream base: Remove frozen banana chunks from the freezer and set aside. If you have not already done so, drain and rinse the cashews. Add to the bowl of high-speed blender with 1/2 cup water and blend until completely smooth and creamy. This may take some time with a standard blender, but you want to make sure all nutty, gritty pieces are gone.
- Transfer the cashew cream to the bowl of a food processor. Add the banana, sea salt, maple syrup, coconut oil, and lemon juice. Split the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds, adding them to the food processor. Pulse the mixture in the food processor until smooth.
- Layer the ice cream base in a freezer-safe container with the nilla wafer pieces and the caramelized banana puree, stirring a bit to swirl the banana puree. Cover and freeze at least 4 hours until firm.
- The nilla wafers are why I'm calling this dairy-free instead of vegan. I used homemade nilla wafers from here that were vegan, and while delicious, I really missed the flavor of the store-bought variety, so I would recommend those if you are not trying to keep it vegan (they contain both whey and eggs). Otherwise, use a vegan store-bought variety or make your own.