Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Cleaning out the Queue - Banana Cream Pie

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I've decided that I'm tired of feeling backed up and behind, so I'm doing away with the "Coming Up" section on my sidebar. I hope you don't mind too much - you probably won't, since I haven't been following it very closely lately. The fact is that topics get stale - something better comes up, my memory fades, or I just plain old change my mind. Sometimes I wind up with a backlog of topics that don't seem to merit their own posts by the time I get to them, and so I just take them off the list. This time I've resolved not to do that, instead I'm cleaning out the queue by covering the topics over the next few days. Starting with banana cream pie...

The original plan for this post was to compare two different recipes, one loosely adapted from Cooking Light and one from a recent NY Times magazine article about LA diner style banana cream pies. (I would link to the article, but it's already been archived and you would have to pay for it.)

Banana cream pie is one of those desserts that just about everybody loves, even if they don't particularly like bananas all that much. It's old fashioned comfort food, evocative of childhood - and apparently in Los Angeles, it's everywhere. The article recommends trying it at Urth Caffe, Clementine, Jar, Bandera, House of Pies and Pie and Burger - and includes a recipe adapted from Clementine.

The pie is generally made up of four components - the crust, the custard, the bananas and the topping. The bananas and the custard are relatively consistent but common variations include using a pastry or graham cracker crust - and topping the pie with whipped cream or meringue. Wanting to keep it somewhat light while leaving out the chemicals - I topped my pie with a torched meringue instead of the "Cool Whip" type topping called for in the recipe. The custard was thick, creamy and flecked with vanilla bean, and most importantly not too sweet. foodblog 1738
After we had licked the last spoon clean, I started thinking about making the "full fat" version. When I dug out the recipe, I was shocked to see that the custard recipes were almost identical, except that the Clementine version calls for the pastry cream to be folded with a little whipped cream instead of the whipped cream cheese - then topped with more whipped cream and creme fraiche. That's a lot of whipped cream! If I do make this again - especially to serve to guests, I will use the custard recipe I used this time, but I will go ahead and top it with the whipped cream. The meringue is - by necessity - just too darned sweet. It won't beat properly if it's not full of sugar, and there's nothing you can do to change that. You can't take the fat out, but at least you can modify the sweetness of your whipped cream topping. I think this recipe combines the best of both worlds.

I did go ahead and cheat a little here, in that I used a pre-made Keebler shortbread crust. Frown if you will, but the truth is that pie crusts and I don't get along very well. My crumb crusts always crumple, and I could market my pastry crusts to UPS as an eco-conscious alternative packaging material. If you think you can do better, by all means go right ahead - I probably should too. I noticed on the package that these things actually have the dreaded trans fats in them.

I suppose you could also use a graham cracker crust here too - but to me, graham cracker crust says cheesecake - or key lime pie. I think the flavor of the banana is much better served by the mild buttery flavor of shortbread. The other debate is whether to put chocolate or other ingredients into the pie. I used a little caramel on the bottom of mine (homemade) but you could also use some dulce de leche - or homemade hot fudge... with a whipped cream topping, some chocolate shavings would also be pretty - I trust you to use your imagination.
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LA Diner Style Banana Cream Pie
adapted from Cooking Light and Clementine, by way of the NY Times

Optimally you should make this recipe at least 2-3 but no more than 24 hours before you plan to serve it. Any longer than that and the bananas will start to get slimy on you.

1 Shortbread crumb crust (either pre-made or homemade)

2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup 1% low-fat milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 Teaspoon vanilla paste (or half of a vanilla bean scraped, plus 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
2 Tablespoons of butter
2 ounces "Neufchatel" or block light cream cheese, softened

2 bananas, sliced
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tablespoons creme fraiche
1 heaping Tablespoon powdered sugar

caramel topping or homemade caramel cooked to the soft ball stage.

crisp lightly fried banana chips (Trader Joes has them) or ordinary banana chips

Combine the 2 tablespoons cornstarch, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, eggs, 1 cup milk, vanilla paste and 1 Tablespoon of butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly with a whisk. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and cook for 30 seconds or until thick. Remove from heat and stir in the second tablespoon of butter. Pass through a fine mesh sieve.

Using the whisk attachment to a hand blender, beat cream cheese until light and smooth, about 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup of the warm custard to the cream cheese, and beat just until blended. Stir in remaining custard. Cover the surface directly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Custard can be made up to two days in advance.

To assemble, cover the bottom of the pie shell with a thin layer of caramel, and dot the caramel with a layer of banana slices. Spread with custard to cover, add another layer of banana slices and fill the pie shell with the remaining custard.

With a standing mixer or whisk attachment to a hand blender, beat the cream and creme fraiche until foamy and thick. Sift in the powdered sugar and beat to soft peaks. Top the pie with the cream topping and garnish with banana chips. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

Serves 8 - 10


  1. Okay Yum, that pie looks stupendous!

  2. I just saved this recipe a couple days ago from another blog. The secret to crumb pie crusts is baking them for about 10min @350. That seems to set them up.

  3. Wow! I am hugely awed by this pie. I made banana cream pie for the first time recently, too--nothing more comforting.