Sunday, April 20, 2008

Banana Cream Pie

I finally got to break open my new food processor! It was one of my favorite Christmas presents, but I hadn't found the right recipe yet. It was finally used to make the nutty crust of this banana cream pie from NPR.

I thought it would be a good pie to use for the Master Baker challenge - the theme this month was vanilla, and I thought that was a good excuse to try a recipe with whole vanilla beans.

I'm also a huge fan of the candied pecans on top. My guests were picking the pecans off and nibbling on them. They were delicious. I almost left them off, thinking that they'd be too much, but I've absolutely glad that I went ahead and made them.

The pudding was a new experience for me, but it was much easier to make than I feared from the directions, and it actually went quite quickly. The directions are blissfully thorough, and warn you ahead of time.

Nut Pastry Pie Dough
Makes one 8- to 10- inch single crust.

1/2 cup finely chopped, raw, unsalted walnuts
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1½ tablespoons cold unsalted butter, diced
1 large egg, lightly beaten

FOOD PROCESSOR METHOD: In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the nuts, flour, sugar and salt until just combined. Add the butter and egg and pulse until the dough balls on the blades. Remove the dough and shape it into a ball. Wrap it tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

HAND METHOD: Put the nuts in a medium bowl with the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles dry cookie dough. Mix in the egg to moisten the dough. Shape the dough into a ball. Wrap the dough tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Press dough into the bottom of a pie pan, cover with parchment paper and pie weights, and parbake at 350 degrees, for 20 minutes. Let cool.

Vanilla Pudding
Makes 3 cups.

2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
1/2 cup sugar, divided
tiny pinch salt
1/2 cup egg yolks (about 6 yolks)
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed

In a large, heavy, non-reactive saucepan (aluminum reacts and will cause a pudding to turn dingy grey), combine the milk, 1/2 cup of the sugar, the vanilla bean and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the yolks, remaining 1/2 cup sugar and cornstarch until smooth.
Have the whisk, a ladle and a large glass or ceramic dish handy. Heat the milk mixture in the saucepan until it just comes to a boil, whisking it a bit as it gets steamy. When you see the first bubbles boiling up, take the pan off the heat and place it on a potholder next to the egg mixture. (To make life a little easier on yourself, put the egg bowl on the right if you're right-handed, or on the left if you're left-handed. Use your stronger arm to whisk; use your weaker arm to ladle the hot milk.
During the next steps, stir constantly or the eggs will coagulate and you'll have scrambled eggs.This is quick work.Take a ladleful of hot milk and pour it in a thin stream into the eggs, whisking constantly. Continue stirring, and add a few more ladlefuls of hot milk to the eggs in the same way.The tempered eggs are now ready to add back into the hot milk.
To do this, whisk the hot milk constantly and pour the tempered eggs in slowly. When fully combined, put this mixture back on the stove top over medium heat and continue to whisk constantly.The mixture should be ready to come back to a boil very quickly.When the custard nears the consistency of pudding, take very short pauses in stirring to look for signs of a bubble surfacing (it is more like a single volcanic blurp). Don't look too closely, or you'll risk getting spattered with hot pudding. Just stir, pause briefly, stir, and so on.
When you see the first blurp, remove the pan from the heat immediately and whisk in the cubes of butter.Whisk until fully combined and immediately pour the pudding into a large glass or ceramic dish to cool it down. While the pudding is still very hot, stretch plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding. Smooth out any air pockets to make the pudding airtight. This will prevent a skin or condensation from forming on top of the pudding. Refrigerate the pudding until completely cold — at least 4 hours.

Stir the cold pudding and retrieve the vanilla bean. Squeeze out the excess seeds (those little black specks) in the interior of the pod with your thumb and forefinger — pinch and slide your fingers down the length of the bean, freeing the black seeds as you go. Do this with each half of the bean, returning as many seeds as possible to the pudding. Stir the pudding again and pour it into the crust. Smooth the top with a spatula.

Candied Nuts
Makes 2 cups candied nuts.

1/4 cup honey
1 1/2 tablespoons whiskey
1 3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups raw unsalted pecans or walnuts

These look like glossy versions of the original nut, but they are robust with candied flavors. Use any kind of honey — clover is fine — because the vanilla and whiskey dominate the flavor anyway.
Preheat the oven to 300°F.
In a large bowl, mix together the honey, whiskey, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. Add the nuts and mix well.
Spread the coated nuts on a large well-greased baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes. Stir and scrape them up every 5 minutes with a spatula and return the pan to the oven until the nuts smell good and are deep glossy brown. Be careful not to burn them.
Remove the pan from the oven and scrape the nuts up with a spatula occasionally as they are cooling or they'll stick together and to the sheet.
When the nuts are cool, dry, and set, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

And Finally ... the Pie!
Makes one 9-inch single-crust pie.

3 cups vanilla pudding (page XX)
pastry for a 9-inch single-crust pie, blind-baked
4 to 5 medium-size ripe bananas
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed
lemon juice
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
candied pecans or walnuts

Select ripe bananas without any sign of spots or green near the stem.
Slice the bananas ¼ inch thick to get about 4 cups and immediately toss them in the lemon juice to prevent them from browning. Stir in the sour cream gently. Layer the coated bananas in the pie crust, and flatten them gently.
Layer the pudding on top and smooth it with a spatula.
Refrigerate the pie, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 2 hours before cutting.
Serve wedges of pie cold with Candied Pecans; their salty accent is quite nice next to the custard and bananas. Store loosely covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.