Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bananas Foster

In a sincere effort to keep my aging mother reasonably healthy, my brother advised her to eat several bananas a week. That was a mistake. Anytime anyone made a suggestion to my mother, she often (though not always, depending on the source) did the exact opposite, just to be obstinate. Up until this point, my mom loved bananas. Mostly, she enjoyed them cut up in a little dish with a light sprinkle of sugar and cream. She liked them on cereal, too. Back in the day, mom also prepared Bananas Foster for dinner parties. She also made Crepes Suzette. The late 50s was the era of the "chafing dish" and flaming desserts were all the rage - a sort of "food as theatre" ritual - drama! Suddenly, mom despised bananas. Why? Because they were good for her! A nutriceutical! Baa! No more bananas! If my brother had suggested that mom give up bananas - then she'd be eating them every day! The same thing happened with eggs. No more scrambled eggs for mom! I told my brother to zip it and just show up with pickled herring from Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.

Bananas eaten out of hand are fine but I always end up with too many as I don't want one every day. Bananas can easily be frozen and placed in a freezer bag, but sometimes I just don't get around to doing so. I bake Banana Bread and Banana Cake with Chocolate or Caramel frosting and sometimes make Banana Ice Cream, which is very easy as it contains no eggs. I usually take the really ripe bananas (one day away from soupy) and throw them in the blender with milk and protein powder. This usually makes me feel rather self-satisfied - as if it somehow reverses yesterday's martini.

Most bananas that we eat are "Cavendish". They're engineered to withstand long transports and to maximize shelf-life. They really don't have much taste until they get quite ripe, although the folks at Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen) maintain that roasting bananas brings out their flavor. In her book, "The Weekend Baker", pastry chef Abagail Johnson Dodge said, "For the deepest banana flavor, the peels need to be completely black, so black that you might be tempted to throw the bananas out. Bananas this ripe are the only kind that will give breads, muffins, and cakes the strongest banana flavor." Her comment is attached to her recipe for Banana Layer Cake, which is excellent as are the other fine recipes in this approachable volume. Lately, I've been trying some of the other cultivated varieties such as finger bananas and red bananas - which have become readily available. Some of them seem sweeter and have a more intense flavor. In any case, bananas are nutritionally sound - packed with potassium, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin C. They seem to be eminently digestable, as well, and they're the ultimate portable food.

Bananas Foster was created in 1951 at Brennan's restaurant in New Orleans. The original recipe includes butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, banana liqueur, dark rum and of course, bananas. The dish is flamed and served over vanilla ice cream. The thirty-five thousand pounds of bananas consumed at Brennan's each year is a testament to the enduring popularity of this dessert.

Now I don't want to mess with Brennan's formula. They invented this luscious sweet and they evidently know what they're doing. Their recipe is readily available on the Internet (I don't print original recipes on this website without obtaining permission from the authors and/or their publishers) and it's delicious. I prepare a similar dish which technically isn't Bananas Foster. The nice thing about this recipe is that you're likely to have all of the ingredients on hand (I don't keep banana liqueur in the pantry but I always have dark rum).


4 firm ripe bananas (yellow with a few black spots*)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 tablespoons whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/3 to 1/2 cup dark rum (I use Myers's)

Slice the bananas lengthwise and then quarter them. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat (this is one of those times when a non-stick pan is quite useful). Add the brown sugar, the salt, and the mace and stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolves and the mixture begins to bubble. Stir in the corn syrup and cream. Add the bananas and saute until they are heated through and coated with the resulting syrup. Carefully pour in the rum. Cook over medium heat until the rum is reduced a bit. You can flame this dessert if you want (omit the cream) but I don't. Frankly, I don't flame things - even with a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. I have enough excitement without creating more, so you're on your own in this regard.

This dish can also be made with frozen pineapple or peaches, which are available all through the year (feel free to use fresh in season). Just substitute 1 bag of frozen fruit. The warm fruit can be served over ice cream or pound cake - or, what the hell, ice cream AND pound cake (a purchased "all-butter" poundcake is fine). This dessert is ridiculolusly simple to pull togther and everyone will think you're a genius (and you will be if you routinely keep fruit and pound cake in the freezer at all times). If you want to serve it as a family dessert - kids included - just leave out the rum or substitute an equal amount of apple cider. In spite of everything, I think mom would approve.

Note: For this recipe, the bananas should be yellow with no green color. A few black spots are acceptable. The bananas should still be firm enough so they don't fall apart.