April 26, 2012

Banana Cream Pie

I made a banana cream pie last night.

I say that not so much to make you crave banana cream pie or make you jealous of my mad culinary skills, or to make you feel like you should take the time to lovingly handcraft a pie for your family on a busy weeknight, but to illustrate that I don't want to be over-zealous about this whole locavore thing.

I mean I love eating local.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that, but I get really sick of reading blogs and articles that seem moralistic about eating locally or eating "real" food.  I enjoy reading food writing that is personal.  I like to read about what a person cooks or how intensley they enjoyed a restaurant meal, or why they choose grass-fed over grain-fed beef and how they buy it.  But I particularly don't enjoy it when bloggers start given nutritional advice to readers. Actually, I take that back.  I like that too, when the blogger is backing up the statement with real research.  Personal experience only counts as research sometimes.  I know that's not fair.  But such is life: a series or opinions and beliefs all rooted in personal experience, some of which have more factual substance than others. 

So last night, on a whim I made a pie.  I had a store-bought graham cracker crust in the pantry and my mom brought over some bananas "because they were on sale."  I think my mother thinks it is cruel and unusual punishment to not have bananas in the house for the girls.  They are such an all-American fruit, after all. Oh, wait, they are grown in Ecuador... So she smuggles in a bunch every now and then. And don't bother asking me why I act offended by store-bought bananas, when a store-bought pie crust (with all those "icky unpronouncable ingredients") doesn't bother me at all.  It's a delicious treat, not a vote for evil corporations, corrupt politicians and the current system of grossly underpaying farm workers everywhere.  Oh, those poor banana pickers!  But I digress. 

So I had a pie crust in the pantry and a banana on the counter and a vague memory of a recipe I read online: banana cream pie.

The black bean enchiladas I had assembled for dinner were already in the oven (nothing worth writing about, a couple of cans, some Tillamook cheese and a dozen storebought tortillas involved), and I was out of salad greens, so there was nothing for me to do while the enchiladas baked.  I thought maybe I'd make vanilla pudding and pour it into the pie crust over a layer of thinly sliced banana, but Jason reminded me that he hates the texture of banana, but he likes the flavor.  So I had to figure out how to make a banana pudding without banana chunks.

Using the recipe for Vanilla Pudding in my trusty Betty Crocker Cookbook, I added 1/2 a banana, diced, and I caramelized the sugar and banana, because, why not?

The pudding called for two egg yolks, which left me with two egg whites, which made me think, "Isn't a meringue just egg whites and sugar whipped up?"  I flipped back a page in the cookbook to the recipe for Lemon Meringue Pie and found that yes, a meringue is simply egg whites, cream of tartar, sugar and vanilla extract. It seemed more logical to whip up a meringue than to freeze those two egg whites, so while the pudding waited in the pie shell, I preheated the oven (which had been turned off twenty minutes before when the enchiladas came out) and made a meringue.

It was only after the meringue was whipped, that I realized that spooning it onto the still-a-little-runny pudding would make a mess, and that I needed to be more gentle in my approach.  Finally, an opportunity to use the psuedo-pastry-bag kitchen gadget that Grace got me for my birthday! Or was it Christmas?  So I opened the box, felt rather valiant when I actually pre-washed the parts even though by this time I was pushing the kids' bedtime back, and figured out how to assemble the thing.  I used the star tip, loaded it up with meringue and piped the meringue semi-neatly onto the pudding. Into the oven for four minutes to toast that meringue and then an abbreviated (way too short) chill in the freezer before cutting into it. Well, okay--and maybe if you didn't think I was just a little obsessive before, maybe you'll think so now--I "plated" it:  one slice of banana on each slice of pie (except Jason's) and a sprinkling of chopped almonds which I toasted with a little brown sugar (except on Jason's, because he doesn't like nuts).

The meringue was pretty in that nice pattern with a good golden brown finish.  The pudding tasted just as I would expect a banana pudding to taste, but it didn't set up as well as I would have liked.  Maybe I should have increased the cornstarch, or maybe it just needed a longer chill time. It pooled around the crust on our plates, rather unattractively, but oh well. It tasted great, like a s'more, but with banana filling instead of semi-melted chocolate.  Definitely something I'd be willing to make again with a little more lead time.

Banana Cream Pie
Adapted from Betty Crocker.
One 9" piece serves eight.  Notes are incorporated into the recipe. 

One 9" graham cracker pie crust of your choice. 

Banana Pudding

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 banana, diced
2 - 3 tablespoons cornstarch (I used 2, but next time I would use 3)
2 cups milk (Having converted to local raw milk, I used whole unpasteurized milk, but you could presumably use whatever milk you prefer.)
big pinch of kosher salt (1/8 teaspoon)
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


2 egg whites (Betty Crocker's recipe calls for three, but that would mean I'd have an extra yolk, and I felt that two egg whites yielded the right amount of meringue for the pie, about an inch.  A larger mountain of meringue would have overwhelmed the layer of pudding.
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
4-6 tablespoons sugar (if you prefer less sweet desserts use the lesser amount, but if, like Jason and Grace, you want a sweet dessert, use it all)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (In my haste I forgot this, but I did add a pinch (1/16 teaspoon) of ground cardamom.  The flavor did not seem to come through, but I do think banana and cardamom is a worthwhile flavor combination.)

Optional garnishes:
Banana, sliced on the diagonal
Nuts (walnuts or almonds) chopped coarsely, toasted briefly in a skillet with a pat of butter and a spoonful of brown sugar

1.  Prepare pudding:  In medium saucepan, over medium heat, combine sugar and bananas.  Let the sugar melt, stirring gently once or twice, as it turns a caramel color and the smell of cooking bananas fills your kitchen.  Meanwhile, in 2-cup measuring cup, whisk cornstarch into 1/2 cup milk.  Pour in the remaining milk.  When sugar has caramelized, and before it begins to smoke, add salt and slowly stir in milk.  The caramel will probably seize (harden into clumps) and that's okay.  Just leave it on medium heat and stir occasionally as the milk heats and melts the caramel.  Place two egg yolks in your 2-cup measuring cup or a small mixing bowl.  Reserve the whites for the meringue.

When the caramel has melted into the milk, stir more frequently as the mixture comes to a boil.  Boil and stir 1 minute.  Mixture should thicken some.  Pour at least half of the hot mixture into the egg yolks.  Pour slowly and stir constantly to temper the eggs.  Pour the tempered eggs back into the saucepan and stir frequently while heating to a boil.  Boil and stir 1 minute.  Remove from heat.  Stir in butter, rum and vanilla extract.  Pour hot pudding through a sieve (to catch any bits of banana fiber and any 'scrambled' eggs) and into the pie shell.  Set aside.

2.  Prepare meringue:  Preheat oven to 400F.  Have ready a pastry bag or cookie decorator or a big ziplock bag for piping the meringue onto the pie.  In bowl of electric mixer combine egg whites and cream of tartar.  Whip on high speed until soft peaks form.  Add sugar.  (If you want to add any ground spices such as cardamom, do it now.)  Continue to whip until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla and whip a couple seconds, just to incorporate it. Fill pastry bag and carefully pipe meringue over pudding in pie shell.

3. Bake, chill and serve:  Bake pie until meringue is pleasantly golden brown.  Betty Crocker said this would take 8-10 minutes, but I am glad I checked my pie at 4 minutes, because it was perfect just then.  Chill pie thoroughly in the refrigerator at least an hour or two.  (Right.  That's if you plan ahead and it's not already the kids' bedtime.)  Slice pie into servings and garnish each serving as desired.

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