The Proof is in there: Nanna’s Puddin'
Anthony Underwood describes himself as a true connoisseur of banana pudding. Growing up, his mother, Momma Ruby, made the best home-cooked banana pudding that he knew of, the home-cooked part being of utmost importance. During our conversation, he fondly reminisced about that long-ago scene: his mother, standing over a piping hot stove, “nurturing” the pudding until it came out just right, then asking her son to clean out the pots after the dessert was complete – a part of the process Underwood realized was a privilege. Later, after he grew up and left home, Momma Ruby would faithfully make Underwood’s favorite dessert every time he visited. No other pudding was ever the same.
When Momma Ruby passed away in 1997, Underwood found himself craving her iconic banana pudding and not knowing how to create it himself. He scouted a number of restaurants, taste-testing their iterations, but he would always come up disappointed. “I realized so many puddings are fakes,” he admits. “And if it’s not cooked, it’s not real.”
One day, he confided in his wife about his search, and together, the two of them decided what had to happen: He would recreate Momma Ruby’s pudding himself. First, he interviewed a handful of older relatives who “told him as best they could what they remembered.” Finally, he ventured into the kitchen to prepare his first-ever batch of banana pudding, and something wonderful and unexplainable took place.
“It was like my mother’s spirit came upon me,” he says. “I spent hours in that kitchen, and it finally came together and ended up amazing. I let my wife try it, and she said it was the best she had ever tasted.”
After a crowd at church affirmed the pudding’s magic with their own rave reviews, Underwood got busy making more Nanna's Puddin.’ “I never expected banana pudding would become a business,” he says. I just want to enjoy the flavor of the good old-fashioned home-style pudding my mother used to make. But when someone offered to pay for the pudding, I started to believe.”
One woman bought a large batch for her family’s Thanksgiving, then came back and told Underwood it was the best part of the meal. Underwood was touched — he knew his mother would have been happy to make her specialty dessert for a family gathering.
Today, Nanna’s Puddin’ is served in select restaurants — including Back Porch in Bessemer, Bre’s Gourmet and Good Games in Atlanta – and is shipped nationwide, as well as appearing at farmers markets and pop-ups. Now a family business, Underwood’s grandchildren help out with the marketing. Everyone who samples Nanna’s Puddin’ raves heartily about their first bite, consisting of equal parts cookie, pudding and banana, then realizes each subsequent bite is just as delicious.
“My mother set the standards, and we continue them,” Underwood says. “I often hear from people that they taste the love in our pudding. I believe that if you care for something, people can feel that love.”
Life is Sweet: Cake Honeys
As a child, Ukraine native Vasilisa Strelnikova spent a few years living in the United States while her parents worked in Birmingham, Alabama. While she loved those years, she never thought the American family they connected with would figure prominently in her future – after all, the internet did not exist, and keeping in touch was more difficult. Fast-forward to when the Russo-Ukrainian war began, and, like many other Ukrainians, Strelnikova and her family hoped it would pass swiftly enough that no drastic plan would be needed. Ultimately, this hope proved incorrect. “It started becoming problematic to find food or withdraw cash,” she shares. “We realized we would have to move somewhere safer. For all of us Ukrainians, this was unexpected and shocking.”
First, she and her husband and teenage son moved out of their city and to the western side of the country — but soon, they realized it was not enough of a change. Strelnikova knew she did not have many choices, and, although nothing can replace home, she knew of at least one spot that would come fairly close: Birmingham, Alabama, where she had lived comfortably during those childhood years. “The internet helped me find who I needed to find,” she says. “I remembered the family with warmth and love, so I wrote them a letter.”
After the move back to the U.S., while waiting on her documentation to legally start working, Strelnikova felt idle. In an effort to busy herself as well as show appreciation for her host family, she began baking and cooking. “I started making and sharing things, and people really liked them,” she says, beaming.
This encouragement was enough for Strelnikova to continue. She’d always loved baking, and she decided to start with items she knew many locals hadn’t tried. Her signature item, the honey cake, is an authentic Ukrainian dessert and is now the namesake of her blossoming business — but many other sweets are on her menu, and many more are to come. “Whatever I know, I make, and I’m always working on new things as well,” she says. “I just learned to make homemade caramel, which I used in the layers between a cake. We just tested it, and it’s delicious.”
She considers her culinary prowess a special gift — interestingly enough, she did not learn it from her mother. In fact, when she asked her host, Ellen, if she could prepare food for the family, Ellen politely declined, recalling Strelnikova’s mother’s subpar cooking skills. “She said, ‘We didn’t like what your mom cooked.’ But then I said don’t worry; I didn't like her cooking either!’” Strelnikova laughs.
“I have a feeling that I might have cooked and baked in a previous life,” she adds.
This feeling that things are being taken care of in mysterious ways is not new to her; she says she maintained a special faith even in the darker times before leaving Ukraine. “I really had a feeling, when everything was happening, that everything would turn out fine,” she says. “I felt like something bigger than me was happening in my life – something removing me from that horrible situation I was in.”
Newly branded as Cake Honeys, her baked goods have taken off in terms of markets and pop-ups, with Strelnikova maintaining high hopes to open a coffee shop or storefront sometime in 2023. She has daydreams of a cafe where good coffee is served alongside homemade sweets, and connections are made, much like the one that has turned into her new life in the United States.
“A place where people can chat and be happy,” she affirms. “I believe when you do something from your heart, it has to be successful.”
Her signature item, the honey cake, is an authentic Ukrainian dessert and is now the namesake of her blossoming business.