This week, we venture into the world of the banana.
It’s a rare trek for me, as it’s one fruit that my darling wife Tracy cannot abide. It’s the smell, more than anything, especially as they over-ripen, so our house remains, by and large, free from bananas most of the year.
Occasionally I’ll get a craving and buy a few, but I’ve got used to a banana-free zone at home, and I can’t really say I miss them all that much. That is, until I eat one, and then it all comes flooding back; the childhood memory of sitting on the back step in summer, eating a bowl of sliced banana with a splash of ice-cold full-cream milk. Perhaps a sprinkle of Demerara.
The simple, vaguely amusing, pleasure of peeling one perfectly (and now we know that we all do it the wrong way – you leave the ‘stalk’ end intact, apparently – millions of monkeys can’t be wrong) or stuffing one with chocolate buttons and baking it into a delightful gooey, fragrant mess.
Funny old things, bananas, when you think about it, aren’t they? Starchier than other juicy, luscious fruit. A bit like cooked potato. And never hugely sweet, either.
Their comparatively low natural sugariness makes them great snacking fruits. And while we’re at it, I’m quite happy calling a banana a fruit. Technically it’s a herbaceous berry, but let’s not quibble.
There are many types, and those familiar with our local Caribbean stores will recognise the larger, starchier plantain, used in soups and stews as a vegetable.
READ MORE: Stephen Jackson: Banana Caramel Cake
For most people, however, the word banana is synonymous with the sweet, yellow dessert type, almost all of which come from the famous Cavendish cultivar, the origin of which is an incredible story.
Given a banana plant in the 1830s, William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, along with his gardener, cultivated the sweeter version in the glasshouses at his Chatsworth estate, of all places. You can still see them growing if you visit. Clearly, things went well, as now much of the world’s banana crop is of the Cavendish variety, from the Caribbean to the Pacific.
But, the Cavendishes are in grave danger, as they are now becoming susceptible to a blight called Panama Disease, previously only threatening to other types.
Scientists have no remedy, so a new, resistant cultivar may be necessary.
Soon, those Chatsworth bananas may be the last remaining Cavendish trees on Earth. So sad. Let’s celebrate the banana in the best way, then, shall we?
This week’s recipe is my own version of an American classic, the Banana Cream Pie. You’ll find this at most diners across the USA, and it’s generally made with a standard recipe. Having perused several of these, I decided I was going to go another way.
The use of stodgy cornflour and flavourings didn’t sit well with me, and I thought the whole thing would weigh so much you’d be able to demolish walls with it. Better to go with a classic European-style custard to bind things together; lighter, fresher and delightfully creamy, and full of those flavours of my childhood bowlful. With a nod to the beloved Cavendish bananas, there’s a slight Caribbean feel to pastry, with the addition of warming spices, and a touch of vanilla in the cream and the custard.
Staying on those warm, breezy, tropical islands, we finish with a dusting of dark muscovado sugar, rounding off our love-letter to the banana in a most satisfying way.
For the pastry:
170g plain flour
100g butter, chilled and diced
1 fresh free-range egg yolk
A pinch of Maldon salt
A pinch of ground cinnamon
A pinch of freshly-grated nutmeg
A pinch of ground ginger
For the filling:
9 fresh free-range egg yolks
75g unrefined golden caster sugar
500ml double cream
The seeds of 2 vanilla pods (or use extract)
3-4 ripe Cavendish bananas
1 x 23cm tart tin (with removable base)
250-300ml whipping cream
A little unrefined dark muscovado sugar
First, make the pastry; by hand, or in a processor, whizz the flour, spices, sugar and butter together until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
With the power still on, add the egg and then a trickle of chilled water, until it just brings the pastry together into a medium-soft dough.
Shape into a rough thick disc by hand, wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least an hour.
Heat the oven to 200ºC/Gas 6. On a wide, well-floured work surface, roll out the pastry in a rough circle, about the thickness of a pound coin.
Line the tin with the pastry, pushing it gently into the corners, leaving plenty of overlap, then cut out a similar-sized disc of baking parchment. Screw it into a tight ball, then carefully unfold it and push it gently into the pastry case, making sure it gets to every corner. Fill the case with baking beans and chill the tart for another hour.
Bake the tart for 15-20 minutes, or until it is set and pale gold in colour, then remove the parchment carefully and bake for a further 5 minutes to fully cook the base.
If any holes have appeared, brush them immediately with a little egg white to seal. Lower the oven temperature to 130°C/Gas 1.
Peel the bananas, and slice them on the angle to about ½ cm thickness.
Fan them around the base of tart neatly and start the custard; whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together, then add the cream and mix well.
Strain through a sieve into a pan, and heat gently, whisking constantly, to blood temperature. Pour the just-warmed custard carefully over the bananas in the pastry case and bake for 35-45 minutes, until the custard is just set and nicely wobbly.
Allow to cool a little, then, with a serrated knife, carefully trim off the excess pastry. Cool the tart completely.
Whip the cream to a medium-firm peak, pipe neatly over the tart and finish with a liberal dusting of dark muscovado sugar.