Did you know that yesterday was National Pie Day? Don't ask me why they picked January of all months to formally celebrate pie instead of midsummer when fresh, seasonal fruit is readily available. But who am I to argue with the people who come up with arbitrary holidays for marketing reasons? I like pie!
My plan for Sunday was to present you with a recipe for banoffee pie, a seductive variation on banana cream pie with a silky caramel filling reminiscent of dulce de leche. It's a popular dessert in Britain and other places where British influence lingers. The recipe I was working with came straight from my sister's South African mother-in-law, who has all kinds of delicious things in her repertoire. But, for some reason, which I chalked up to inaccurate metric conversions or possible hemispheric differences, the filling only worked for me half the time. One day I'd make it, and it would be perfection. The next, it would be a soupy mess. It went on like this for years. Finally, I decided I would get to the bottom of the problem once and for all. On National Pie Day 2011.
I reviewed my notes from previous attempts and proceeded to make the first pie. The result: pie soup. So, I made another pie. That one ended up with a filling as firm as fudge. Good for fudge, bad for pie. I cursed and cursed, but at least I had the two extremes mapped out. I continued to zero in on the sweet spot, making adjustments to the amount of liquid and heat in the recipe. The clock, however, was ticking on National Pie Day. I considered posting my best recipe guess without retesting it. But what if it failed again? I could just see the police arriving to tape off my comment section. Or maybe they would be too mad about their failed pies to even bother.
In the end, quality trumped punctuality. National Pie Day passed me by. This morning, after letting the fricking freezing morning air slap me across the face a few times, I retested the filling based on my new hypotheses. Twice. Both were winners. So now you have a confirmed recipe for banoffee pie. It's a day late, but less likely to leave you a dollar short. And after all, in the real world, Pie Day is any day you want.
Make the crust and caramel filling ahead. Then, slice the bananas and whip the cream just before serving (or no more than a few hours in advance so the bananas don't brown). Plan on eating the whole pie at serving time since it doesn't keep well. Your guests won't require much convincing.
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 cups finely ground graham cracker crumbs
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup condensed milk (6 oz.)
1 cup heavy cream
For the crust, mix melted butter with graham crackers crumbs, and press into 9-inch pie plate or tart pan. (I actually like to rub cold butter into graham cracker crumbs to make a more cohesive dough, but this takes more time. Your call.)
In a small saucepan, melt butter and brown sugar over low heat, stirring constantly. When mixture starts to foam up to a simmer, stir in condensed milk. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. This is where you need to pay attention. Turn down heat and simmer, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Set a timer. While you're stirring, scrape every inch of the bottom and sides of the pot to prevent scorching and unsightly lumps. When the spoon starts to leave a trail on the bottom of the pot, around 2 minutes, remove from heat. More than 3 minutes and you'll end up with something too stiff to be enjoyable in pie. Pour caramel over crust. Let cool in refrigerator for 45 minutes.
When ready to serve, whip cream in a large bowl with a whisk or electric mixer (no sweetener necessary). Stop when the cream mounds softly and forms soft peaks when you lift up the whisk. I try to stop before the cream goes from smooth to rough and rumpled, almost styrofoamy in appearance. It's still edible at this point, but not as texturally pleasing. If you go much beyond that, you'll end up with waxy butter flecks in your cream. I made that mistake my third day in culinary school and I shan't make it again.
Slice bananas and pile on top of caramel. Top with whipped cream. Dust with cocoa if desired. Devour.
Note: You may substitute canned dulce de leche for the homemade caramel filling. Use caution, though, when using jars of charming, locally made, farm-fresh cajeta, which are typically too runny. Save that ambrosia for another purpose, like drizzling over ice cream.