Monday, August 24, 2009

Retro Desserts, Part I : The American Dream of Banana Cream

Banana cream pie is not what you might call a fashionable dessert. It contains no exotic ingredients, requires knowledge of no arcane methodologies for its preparation, and--God knows-- it's not low in either fat or calories. And yet, despite all of those factors, a hefty percentage of casual American restaurants still offer it on their menus. Why? Besides its obvious creamy lusciousness, there must be something more behind its perennial appeal. Personally, I think it's due to a pervasive nostalgic yearning. Let's call it Go to the Diner for a Piece of Pie Syndrome. Enjoying a nice slice of a traditional cream pie, especially if we're under the impression it's been made from scratch, satisfies a deeply rooted need of ours to believe that the Soul of Americana still thrives, despite fierce odds. Afterall, if little restaurants from coast to coast are still crankin' out the cream pies, then I guess everything can't be all bad, can it?

Banana cream pie even looks comfortingly retro, don't you think? There's all that soft, fluffy, whipped cream on the top. That's all, just whipped cream. No fancy spun-sugar garnishes. No bittersweet curls carved from chunks of pricey European chocolate. And I could be wrong, but as far as I know, there is no dessert wine that exists solely in order to be paired with it. Banana cream pie is humble. It doesn't discriminate. I'd wager it will never be the focus of a full-blown Food Network Challenge, but that's okay because you see . . . it doesn't care. Banana cream pie didn't seek fame; fame sought the banana cream pie.

And so begins a series of periodic posts I plan to do on retro desserts. That is, desserts that don't even come close to fitting into the ultra-modern mold but that still persist within the American psyche. What kind of stuff am I talking about? Well, maybe things like classic devil's food cake with chocolate frosting, Boston cream pie, chocolate bread pudding, cherries jubilee on vanilla ice cream, and so on. Maybe even baked Alaska, if that's not pushing the anachronistic envelope too much. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Because I could really use some. I'd like to have a good-sized list to choose from. Let me know if you think of anything, okay? Seriously. :)

So now for today's recipes. There are actually two--one for the pastry cream, and one for the crust, which I made out of the crumbs of homemade cookies. The pastry cream recipe is from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion cookbook, and it's a very good one. I wouldn't hesitate to use it again. The cookie recipe, which I've included below directly after the pie recipe, is from the book Cookie Craft by Peterson and Fryer. It's the recipe I typically use if I am making the type of cookies that will be elaborately decorated. These cookies, ground into crumbs, are perfect for pie crust because they're not very sweet (thus I hesitate to call them sugar cookies, though that is in fact what they're called), they're very firm (these babies are built to be tough), and they have very little moisture.

If I do say so myself, my pie turned out to be extremely delicious. One might say it was a stark raving success, and that's the best kind of success to have in the kitchen.

Banana Cream Pie with Cookie-Crumb Crust

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a 9" pie plate.

1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. unbleached flour
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
2 cups whole milk (I didn't have whole so I used 1 cup 2-percent milk and 1 cup heavy cream)
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract or almond extract (I used vanilla)

3 medium-sized bananas, cut into pieces that are sliced on an angle (the recipe said 2 medium but I found that wasn't enough)

Enough cookies to yield 2 cups of crumbs
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

To make the crust:

Place several cookies, broken into small pieces, into bowl of food processor. Pulse repeatedly until they're the proper consistency (not too finely; you don't want them to be like paste!).

In a medium bowl, place the cookie crumbs, confectioner's sugar and mix together.

Add in the melted butter and mix well with a fork until all the crumbs are a bit moistened.

Pour the buttery crumbs into your pie plate. Press them down evenly in the pan, and up the sides.

Bake the crust for approximately 10 to 12 minutes. Check the crust early to make it's not getting brown. You just want it to be golden. Set aside the baked crust to cool.

To make the pastry cream:

In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, cornstarch, salt, and eggs.

In a medium-size saucepan, over medium heat, bring the milk/cream to a boil.

Add the hot milk/cream to the egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly to ensure smoothness. Pour the liquid back into the saucepan and return it to the stove; bring it back to a boil. Stir continually with the whisk (if you don't, you'll get undesirable lumps!).

The pastry cream will thicken quickly. When you see it start to boil in the center, immediately remove it from the heat.

Add in the butter and vanilla and stir until smooth. Set aside.

To assemble the pie:

Place the sliced banana pieces in the pie shell in concentric circles, more or less.

Spoon or pour the warm pastry cream over the bananas and smooth out the top.

Cover the top with plastic wrap; the wrap should touch the pastry cream to help prevent a skin from forming.

Refrigerate the pie for at least a couple of hours before serving. If you like, top it with sweetened or unsweetened whipped cream.

Recipe for Sugar Cookies (to use as crumbs for pie-crust)

3 cups All Purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg 2 tsp. vanilla extract

Whisk together flour and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside. Using mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, using the paddle attachment. Add the vanilla. On low speed, add in the flour mixture gradually, mixing until the two are thoroughly blended.

Chill the dough. Roll sections of dough out to about 1/4 inch thickness (or thinner if you prefer; adjust baking time accordingly if thinner). Bake on parchment covered cookie sheets, on middle oven rack, at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes--not until golden brown all over. They should just be light golden on the bottom. Cool on sheet for a few minutes, then remove from sheets to finish cooling on racks.

(If you'd like to comment on this post or to read any existing comments, click on the purple COMMENTS below!)

Recipe full disclosure! Besides any changes mentioned in the post above, the only other change I made to the recipes was to reword the instructions for clarity.

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