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Thursday, May 9, 2013 08:54 am

Bananas gone wild

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Banoffee pie is made of toffee, bananas, whipped cream and more on a crumb crust.

“You have never heard of Banoffee pie?” asked my daughter Ashley. “I thought everyone knew about Banoffee pie!”

Four years at Lincoln University in New Zealand taught Ashley many things. Most importantly was that she didn’t want to make wine or grow wine grapes as a profession, the careers that her major in viticulture and oenology were preparing her to do.

She learned other things. That her life’s calling was to “get back into a [professional] kitchen” and what she wanted most of all “is to eventually open my own catering business in Springfield.”

Other lessons revolved around British/British Commonwealth customs, not least of which were desserts.

“What’s for pudding?” Ashley would ask me for months after she moved back home. In Great Britain and its colonies, both present and past, pudding is synonymous with dessert. Jokes continue to be made about the U.K.’s “stodgy” cooking, but much of that criticism is unfair, based on the dreadful quality of severely rationed British cooking served to American soldiers during both World Wars. These days London’s food scene is even more highly regarded than even Paris’. But British puddings have been esteemed for hundreds of years.

Ashley was right to be incredulous about my lack of familiarity with Banoffee pie. Even though it’s relatively new compared to other puddings (such as my personal favorite, a black currant-studded cylinder known as “spotted dick”), its reputation, along with myriad interpretations, has spread far beyond the U.K. and its Commonwealth.

Banoffee pie was created in 1972 at The Hungry Monk, a now defunct restaurant in Jervington, East Sussex, in Great Britain. The popularity of Banoffee pie spread like wildfire. By 1994, the Hungry Monk’s owner, Nigel Mackenzie, and chef, Ian Dowding, were hearing that Banoffee pie was being featured in American restaurants and even being sold in groceries as a historically American pie. Incensed, Mackenzie offered a £10,000 prize to anyone who could produce a published pre-1972 recipe for Banoffee pie. When no one claimed the prize, Mackenzie proudly erected a plaque at the restaurant’s entrance proclaiming it, “The Birthplace of the World’s Favourite Pudding.”

Initially, the seemingly endless variations such as Banoffee muffins, basically a banana nut muffin drizzled with the caramelized “toffee,” or a Banoffee sundae: vanilla ice cream topped with slices of bananas, the toffee/caramel, and whipped cream caught my eye.

But it was the realization that the toffee was essentially “dulce de leche” an Hispanic caramel made by boiling unopened tins of sweetened condensed milk submerged in water for hours.

When Ashley returned to Springfield, she made Banoffee pie several times, thus beginning my love affair with Banoffee pie that continues today. Still, I hadn’t made it until I recently texted her for the recipe. Her reply: “Boil a tin of sweetened condensed milk for 5 hours. Layer with sliced bananas onto a crumb crust. Top with whipped cream, and grate or shave some chocolate over the top. Some people add confectioner’s sugar and/or coffee or chocolate liqueur to the whipped cream, but the toffee is so sweet, I like it better when whatever cream you top it with isn’t sweetened.

Ash’s abbreviated reply left me with questions, so I Googled it, finding out how just wildly popular Banoffee pie has become, and the endless variations that exist, some appropriate, and some, well, not so appropriate.

The biggest difference in the traditional pies seemed to be how and how long it took to make the toffee. Celebrity chefs such as Paula Deen and Nigella Lawson made the toffee cream in a double boiler with constant stirring, which seemed like a lot of work for no better result than the simpler method.

Banoffee pie
For the toffee, aka dulce de leche:
• 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk, unopened
• Vinegar, optional

Place the unopened tin(s) of sweetened condensed milk in a pot of water deep enough to cover them with several inches of water and large enough (if making more than one can of toffee) that they are not crowded in the pot. Add a quarter cup or so of white vinegar or other inexpensive vinegar to the pot to avoid accumulations of the minerals in the water from forming on the edges of the pot.

Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to a rolling boil. Cook for at least 2 1/2 hours, and up to 5 hours, adding water as needed to ensure that the tins remain well submerged. You may need to add a bit more vinegar as well.

Carefully remove the tins from the pan with a heavy set of tongs or large slotted spoon. Cool completely before using. Toffee/dulce de leche will keep, unrefrigerated, for least six months or more, although as time passes, the toffee may form sugar crystals.

For the crust:
8 oz. graham crackers, preferably Nabisco’s Original Graham Crackers (about 11 whole crackers) or British digestive biscuits, such as McVitie’s (about 15 biscuits)
4 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 F.    

Pulverize the crackers or biscuits in a food processor or with a rolling pin. Add the softened butter and knead or process until a dough is formed. Press the dough into a 9-inch pie pan or plate.

Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Cool completely before proceeding to finish the pie.

To finish the Banoffee pie:
• 2-4 ripe but still firm bananas, cut into approximately 3/4-inch slices
• 1 1/2-2 c. heavy cream, crème fraîche (recipe below), or commercial sour cream, chilled
• 1/4 c. confectioner’s sugar, optional
• 2 T. coffee, chocolate, orange or other appropriately flavored liqueur, optional

Optional garnishes:

Additional sliced bananas (toss with a bit of lemon juice to keep them from browning)
Grated or shaved chocolate, either milk, dark or semisweet
Spread a thin layer of the toffee on the bottom of the cooled crumb crust. Cover completely with the banana slices, but don’t overlap them. Spread the remaining toffee over the sliced bananas. If the toffee is cold you may want to warm it by setting it in a pan of hot water for a few minutes to make it easier to spread.

Whip the chilled heavy cream or crème fraîche (the sour cream cannot be whipped) and, if desired, add the confectioner’s sugar and/or liqueur.

Spread evenly over the banana/toffee layer and garnish, if you like, with the additional bananas and/or chocolate.

It’s incredibly easy to make. And homemade crème fraîche has a wonderful mouth-feel and subtle tanginess that commercial sour cream just can’t match. A couple weeks ago, my husband brought home a container of plain ol’ sour cream that contained 13 ingredients besides the “cultured” cream. Presumably, those ingredients (some of which are relatively “good for you”) were included to ensure long shelf life. But they gave the sour cream a slightly off, almost plastic-like taste and texture.

Homemade crème fraîche has other advantages over commercial sour cream: when added to soups or stews it can be boiled, unlike grocery sour cream that curdles when boiled. And, again unlike commercial sour cream, it can be whipped. As such, it’s my preferred topping for desserts such as Banoffee pie, providing balance to other exceptionally sweet elements.

Crème fraiche
• 1 quart heavy whipping cream
• 1/4 c. (4 T.) buttermilk

Warm the cream just to room temperature. Stir in the buttermilk. Let stand in a warm (72-80 degrees) place overnight or until thickened. Refrigerate for several hours before using. Crème fraîche will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks. Makes approximately 4 cups.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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