Banana Cream Pie

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This pie is undoubtedly the best dessert I have ever made. It is also the most terribly stressful recipe I have ever attempted.

(My family also would like to point out that this pie is deeply un-photogenic and interject that it tastes a lot better than it looks.) 

Once upon a time, I was determined to make some kind of fancy dessert for Christmas dinner. I came across this recipe in The Pie and Pastry Bibledidn’t read it carefully, and thought it would be an easy yet beautiful dessert.

Reading over the recipe in full, I realized that within the recipe, there were two more fairly involved recipes, like some kind of Inception-inspired sick joke. The first recipe-within-a-recipe was for flaky pie crust. I decided to push forward; after all, how difficult could making a pie crust be?

After two failed pie crusts, I feared I had bitten off more than I could swallow. For pie crust, it’s important to keep the dough as cold as possible until it enters the oven. Thanks to my overachieving blood circulation, I literally softened the butter just by touching it. The third crust was far from perfect – I couldn’t figure out how to prevent the pie pastry walls from collapsing – but I was running out of time.

The next hurdle: the pastry cream. I decided to make the pastry cream and the whipped cream simultaneously to save time. Obviously, disaster ensued. The pastry cream involves dumping an egg mixture into a hot half and half mixture while stirring continuously. While I was checking on the whipped cream, the egg mixture began to scramble. And while I tried to salvage the pastry cream, my whipped cream turned into whipped butter.

With all the refrigeration time, this recipe had basically devoured my entire day. Somehow, I pushed aside my welling tears, restarted the pastry cream, then the whipped cream, and threw together something resembling a banana cream pie. I swore that I would never ever make banana cream pie ever again.

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Fast forward to now: banana cream pie has now become a family favorite, and against all odds, I have come to love making it. That first time, I could have used cardboard for crust and you wouldn’t have known the difference. Now, the crust is flaky yet sturdy enough to contain the mountains of cream. The pastry cream is smooth, creamy, and blessedly void of any odd pieces of cooked egg.

Over the last four years, I’ve come to know this recipe better than any other, have come to be comforted by the familiarity of each meticulous step of the directions. It has become the yardstick against which I measure my baking skills, a representation of the progress I’ve made. It has become my signature dish. And though I’ve made this pie at least ten times, I swear, each time it still tastes better and better.

P.S. The Pie and Pastry Bible is a beautiful, wonderful cookbook. Not only does it have every pie and pastry recipe you could ever want, but Rose Levy Berenbaum also explains why certain steps are so important and delves into the compositional differences between all different kinds of dough. It, together with The Cake Bible, has taught me basically everything I know about baking.

Banana Cream Pie (adapted from the Pie and Pastry Bible) 

I make the crust and the pastry cream the night before so that the day of, I just have to quickly slice the bananas and whip up the whipped cream, then assemble the pie.

For the crust, it is very important to not over-mix the pie dough or else the dough will be tough like cardboard. Make sure to make a lip of pie crust around the edge of the pie tin to prevent the dough from collapsing into the pan. And always keep the dough cold. If it gets too warm, it will get sticky and unworkable, and you could end up over-flouring the dough, making the pie crust tough.

For the pastry cream, have all the ingredients lined up and ready to go beforehand. To keep the eggs from scrambling, you’ll need to move fast.

To make the crust:

9 tbsp unsalted butter, cold
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking powder
5 tbsp (+ 2 tsp) heavy cream

Cut the butter into cubes. Wrap and refrigerate 6 tbsp of butter and wrap and freeze the other 3 tbsp for at least 30 minutes. Place the flour, salt, and baking powder in a gallon-size freezer bag and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Place the flour mixture in a food processor with a metal blade and process for a few seconds to combine. Save the gallon bag for later.

Add the 6 tbsp butter to the flour and process for about 20 seconds, or until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the remaining frozen butter cubes and pulse until all the frozen butter is the size of peas.

Add 5 tbsp heavy cream and pulse 6 times. Pinch a small amount of the mixture between your fingers. If it does not hold together, add another tsp of heavy cream, pulse three times, then check again mixture holds together. The mixture will be in particles and will not hold together without being pinched.

Pour the dough back into the gallon bag, then holding both ends of the bag opening with your fingers, knead the mixture by pressing it from the outside of the bag with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, flatten it into a disc, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight.

To bake the crust: preheat the oven to 425 F.

Remove the dough from the fridge and roll out on a well-floured surface, working quickly so the dough doesn’t soften and become sticky. (Roll from the center of the dough outwards.) LIft and move the dough occasionally to make sure it is not sticking. If the dough becomes too soft, stick it in the freezer for two minutes, then continue rolling.

Transfer the dough to the pie pan by folding the dough gently into the fourths, then unfolding it gently in the pan.

Place parchment paper on the inside of the crust, then fill the entire pan with baking beans or rice. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Lift out the parchment or filter and prick the crust all over with a fork. Return the shell to the oven for another 5-10 minutes, until the shell is a pale golden brown.

To make the pastry cream:

2 large eggs
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 cups half and half
1/2 cup sugar
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

Have a strainer set over a small bowl near the stove. (It’s important to strain the mixture, or else the cream will turn out lumpy.)

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and cornstarch. Gradually add 1/4 cup of half-and-half, whisking until the mixture is smooth and cornstarch is dissolved.

In a medium heavy nonreactive saucepan, combine sugar, a pinch of salt, and remaining 1 3/4 cups of half-and half. Over medium heat, bring mixture to a full boil, stirring occasionally. Whisk 2 tbsp of hot mixture into egg mixture, then pass egg mixture through strainer into a small bowl.

Bring half-and-half mixture back to a boil over medium heat, then quickly add all the egg mixture, whisking rapidly. Continue whisking rapidly for about 20-30 seconds, being sure to go into the bottom edge of the pan. The mixture should become very thick.

Remove mixture from heat and whisk in butter and vanilla extract. Immediately pour the mixture into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap directly on the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold.

To make the pie:

2 tbsp fresh-squeezed orange juice
6 ripe but firm medium bananas
2 cups heavy cream
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract

Squeeze the orange juice into a medium bowl. Peel and slice the bananas 1/2 in thick. Add them to the OJ and toss lightly to coat them.

In a large bowl, combine the heavy cream and sugar and beat until soft peaks form when the beater is raised slowly. Add the vanilla and beat until stiff peaks form.

Remove 1/4 cup of whipped cream and fold it into the cold pastry cream.

Drain the bananas and cry them on paper towels. Gently fold them into the pastry cream mixture. Scrap the mixture into the prepared pie shell. Mound the remaining whipped cream on the surface of the pie.

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