Chef Alec Varnell Reveals the Perfect Banana Pudding Recipe — Even For Picky Eaters

This pitmaster says he doesn't cook much at home, but when he does, he turns to banana pudding to feed the soul or impress a crowd.

The Messenger; Dish: Robert J. Lerma

Texas native Alec Varnell is the head pitmaster at J Bar M Barbecue in Houston. While his day-to-day consists of prepping protein and smoking meat, he says his go-to recipe at home is a dessert: banana pudding.

"I think, out of most desserts that you find in barbecue, that's typically gonna be the one that everyone loves," Varnell told The Messenger. "It's really kind of hard to pass up."

The pitmaster said that for holidays, birthdays and other get-togethers, he uses the banana pudding recipe his late grandmother passed on to him.

But with extra sweetness and loads of banana pieces, Varnell says his recipe isn't as universal as the one from J Bar M, which serves up mostly a combination of central- and south-Texas-style cooking.

Alec Varnell of restaurant J Bar M Barbecue in Houston, TX
Alec Varnell of restaurant J Bar M Barbecue in Houston, Texas. Credit: Becca Wright

"A banana pudding could be tricky," he said. "Some people like it sweeter, some people like more vanilla, some people may not want any bananas in there, some people like a whole lot, some people like it without wafers."

Varnell says the restaurant's recipe — developed with input from several chefs, owners, and family members' taste buds — is very well-balanced. He said he's gotten overwhelmingly positive reactions to it, even from the pickiest of pudding-eaters.

He also says it's fairly versatile, adding that you can swap out certain ingredients or add different fruits or amounts of whipped cream.

Varnell shared the recipe below, which has been scaled down from restaurant size to give readers a more "user-friendly" and "homestyle" process, rather than one for a larger batch.

Banana pudding from J Bar M Barbecue in Houston, TX
Banana pudding from J Bar M Barbecue in Houston, TX Headshot credit: Robert J. Lerma


For the pudding

  • 6 oz of banana pudding mix
  • 8 oz cream cheese (room temperature) 
  • 14 oz sweetened condensed milk 
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract 
  • 1 1/2 cups half and half 
  • 1 1/2 cups milk 
  • 12 oz vanilla wafers 
  • 4 bananas, sliced 

For the whipped cream

  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream (cold)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract 


  1. Beat cream cheese until fluffy.
    • Varnell says you can use an electric mixer or a Kitchen Aid, "which will definitely cut down prep time and make the process more efficient." But adds that using a whisk or a spoon will still result in the same consistency and quality, it will just take longer.
  2. Beat in the condensed milk.
  3. Then add the pudding mix.
  4. Slowly add in cold milk, half and half and vanilla.
  5. Make the whipped cream
    • Using a chilled bowl, beat ingredients together for 60 to 90 seconds or until stiff peaks form, scraping the cream down the sides of bowl to incorporate together.
  6. Fold in half of the whipped cream and reserve the other half for layering and topping. 
  7. Line a dish with vanilla wafer, layer with bananas, pudding mixture and repeat until reaching the top of the dish.
  8. Crumble 1/4 cup vanilla wafers to sprinkle over top and add vanilla wafers across the top. 

Pro Tip

  • Make this dish one day in advance is "the biggest trick," Varnell says. Adding that it will taste "10-times better" the next day.
    • For starters, he says, it will help cut down on day-of prep if you're hosting a large gathering.
    • The chef also thinks the dish tastes better after sitting in the refrigerator overnight, allowing the ingredients to mingle with one another. "It just packs in more flavor," he said. "I personally like when the wafers get a little softer and start to become uniform with the pudding."
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