So a researcher says that eating comfort food doesn’t really improve our mood, that we bounce back sooner or later no matter what we eat.
OK, then let’s call banana cream pie a celebratory food – a treat that we make because we’re already feeling good. With spring here, who isn’t in the mood for sharing some joy?
Banana cream pie is one of those bang-for-the-buck desserts, looking more elaborate than the actual effort required. The basic custard also lends itself to variations with toasted coconut or grated chocolate.
For any of these pies, we’re proponents of a graham cracker crust. Views differ. But we think that crushed grahams, with their slight crunch and flavor of warm grains, complement the vanilla-mild pastry cream like nobody’s business. Grating a smidge of fresh nutmeg into the crumbs adds another nuance, and feels fresher – more joyful? – than the usual cinnamon.
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The filling is really a classic vanilla pudding, bolstered with half-and-half to give the pie slices enough substance to sit pretty on a plate without slumping. The key to success with a custard is stirring constantly for the several minutes that it takes to cook and thicken.
Stirring doesn’t just mean moving a spatula round and round. It means taking care to move it deliberately across the bottom of the saucepan and to scrape around the edges. Keeping the filling in motion prevents lumps from forming until everything thickens and become slightly glossy. There is a joy in paying attention.
To deepen the flavors without overwhelming the vanilla, we took a cue from the Moosewood Collective’s recipe for butterscotch banana cream pie and substituted light brown sugar for half of the usual sugar. Yum.
Assembly is simple: Line the crust with bananas, top with half the filling, another layer of bananas, then the rest of the filling. Chill for six hours or overnight, then top with freshly whipped cream before serving.
Then bask in the joy, comfortably.
Banana cream pie
Note: Variations for coconut cream and chocolate cream pie follow.
Graham cracker crust:
1 sleeve (9 whole crackers) graham crackers
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, optional
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups (1 pint) half-and-half
1/2 cup milk (1 or 2 percent is fine)
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
3 egg yolks, beaten
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 to 3 ripe bananas
1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, for garnish
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
To make pie crust: Place graham crackers in a large plastic bag, then crush the crackers with a rolling pin or bottle until there are no large pieces, but still some texture. (You also can pulse them in a food processor.)
In a medium bowl, combine crumbs, 1/4 cup brown sugar, nutmeg, salt and melted butter. Mix thoroughly until everything is uniformly moistened. Pour mixture into 9-inch pie plate. Using your fingers or the bottom of a juice glass, press the crumbs against the bottom and up the sides of the pan, making the crust as even as possible. Bake for 10 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.
To make filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together the half-and-half, milk, 1/4 cup brown sugar, granulated sugar, cornstarch and egg yolks. Over medium heat and using a whisk or wooden (or heatproof) spatula, cook the mixture, stirring constantly and taking care to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan until the mixture starts to thicken and bubble. This will take 3 to 4 minutes.
Stir in butter and vanilla, and set aside to cool slightly.
Peel and slice 2 bananas into even slices about 1/4-inch thick. Cover the crust with a layer of bananas, then half the filling, spreading to the edges. Add a second layer of the banana slices, using the third banana if necessary, and cover with remaining filling.
Cover pie with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight. Before serving, top with dollops of whipped cream and additional bananas for garnish.
Coconut cream pie: Spread 11/2 cups of sweetened, flaked coconut on a rimmed baking sheet. In a 325-degree oven, toast the coconut, watching carefully and stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool. Prepare filling as directed. Omit bananas from pie shell. Stir 1 cup of the coconut into the cooked filling, then pour into pie shell. Chill, then garnish with whipped cream and remaining coconut before serving.
Chocolate cream pie: Prepare filling as directed. When adding butter and vanilla, also stir in 8 ounces of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine, stirring until melted and no streaks remain. Pour into pie shell and chill. Garnish with whipped cream and shaved chocolate before serving.
Makes one 9-inch pie (serves 6 to 8)