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How-To

A Banana Tart with a Toffee Twist

Layers of caramel toffee, bananas, and whipped cream, all on a cookie-like crust, make a great tart called “banoffee”

Fine Cooking Issue 50
Photos, except where noted: Mark Thomas
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As so many unexpected love connections are now made, I became hooked on this tart while surfing the Web.

It was this time of year, when my supermarket offers little more than citrus and bananas for fresh fruit. I was in search of a banana-something—anything—just-make-it-different recipe. That’s when I came to The Banoffee Pie Page, an entire Web site “dedicated to the best pudding in the world” (“pudding” means dessert in the U.K.). And what a dessert it is, with its rich caramel base, banana midriff, and lofty whipped cream crown.

While the Hungry Monk restaurant in Sussex, England, lays claim to “inventing” banoffee (pronounced bah-naw-fee) back in 1971, this dessert has evolved over the years. I’ve tried the Hungry Monk’s recipe, and it’s good. But I’ll modestly argue that if you follow my recipe here, you’ll not only get better results, but you also won’t have to risk sacrificing your life in the process (read on about the “toffee”).

Under that billowy cream lie three layers of flavor and texture

Starting at the bottom of the banoffee is a thick, cookie-like crust that’s crisp-tender—the type that gently but decisively snaps under the pressure of a fork. Spread across it is a gooey, caramel-like foundation, which the British would call “toffee”—hence the name: banana + toffee = banoffee.

Next on deck is a single layer of banana halves that covers the caramel layer in snug, concentric circles. The bananas, caramel, and crisp pastry crust are then covered in a downy shroud of whipped cream, barely sweetened, to counter the caramel spread. Finally, a scant measurement of powdered instant coffee is sprinkled on top. Immediately dissolving into the cream, it lends a breath of roasted bitterness that nudges this immodest dessert toward at least appearing adult.

Making the “toffee” filling is slow but easy

The Hungry Monk’s method for the toffee is chancy (though it’s no secret; the method is similar to recipes I’ve seen for making dulce de leche or cajeta, a type of caramel used in Latin American cooking). Here’s how the recipe reads: immerse two unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk into boiling water, cover, and boil for five hours. But take note of the caution that follows: never let the pot of water boil dry or the cans will explode “causing a grave risk to life, limb, and kitchen ceilings.” Scary.

Regardless, I tried it. But in addition to the worry, I didn’t care for this quirky method because I couldn’t monitor the progress of the caramel in the sealed cans. I cooked mine for just four hours and found the caramel had gone too far.

After that, I tried pouring the sweetened condensed milk into a saucepan and cooking it directly over the heat. This required constant attention, and the milk still tended to cook too fast, becoming pocked with burnt sugar nuggets. I’ve since developed a method of cooking the milk in a double boiler (by the way, I only use one can; two make my teeth ache). It’s about a three-hour process. But it requires almost no attention other than to check the water level and give it a stir about every 45 minutes.

The best crust is a short, snappy one

Really, if there’s any cooking challenge to this dessert, it’s the crust. I’ve seen a number of recipes that try to shortcut this step by making a crumb crust with crushed graham crackers. But I found that making this particular crust is easy enough, and better.

First off, I keep the mixing process as simple as counting. It’s not like a flaky crust, in which you have to judiciously cut the butter into the flour mixture and never overmix. Nor do you want to blend the butter so thoroughly into the flour that it’s no longer recognizable, as many short crusts require. To keep my crust tender and even a bit flaky, I like to negotiate between the two techniques. I pulse the food processor so that the butter gets cut in but is still recognizable; there should even be some pieces still the size of peas. Then, when I pour in the cream and egg yolk, I process just enough to blend without having the dough come together. It should still be crumbly. But if you do overprocess the butter, you’re still safe. The fat from the cream and the egg yolk not only adds richness but also helps to minimize gluten formation, which would otherwise toughen the crust. The sugar also helps to inhibit gluten.

In fact, this dough is so remarkably tender that it’s easier to press it out into the pan than to roll it. This is good news since most short crust recipes require a one- to two-hour rest in the refrigerator before the dough can handle being rolled out. An added bonus to pressing it out with your fingers is that an extra thickness of dough tends to build up along the crease where the pan sides meet the base. This helps fortify the sides so that they’re less apt to slip down during baking.

From there on it’s merely a matter of slicing bananas, whipping the cream, sprinkling on crushed coffee granules, and serving your guests.

The five-second pulse: cut the butter into the flour with five quick pulses of the food processor.Scott Phillips
Keep it crumbly. Add the yolk and cream, blend for ten more seconds, and the dough will look like coarse meal.Scott Phillips
Pat and press in a bowl until the mixture forms a cohesive ball.Scott Phillips
Lay down the toffee. A can of sweetened condensed milk is all that’s needed to make this caramellike filling.
Plump up the whipped cream. Spoon it on, lifting up some of the cream as you pull the spoon away.
The final touch: a sprinkling of crushed coffee granules to melt into the cream.

Tips for making banoffee ahead

Up to three days ahead
• Make the caramel; cover tightly and refrigerate.

One day ahead
• Bake the crust; once cooled, wrap tightly in plastic wrap or an extra-large zip-top bag.

A few hours before serving
• Reheat the caramel in a double boiler (or in a heatproof bowl over simmering water) just long enough to soften; spread the caramel in the crust; cover tightly with plastic wrap.
• Whip the cream to soft peaks; transfer to a large mesh sieve set over a bowl to catch any liquid that settles; chill, uncovered.
• Put the coffee granules in a small zip-top bag.

Right before serving
• Slice the bananas and arrange on top of the caramel.
• Spoon on the whipped cream.
• Crush the coffee granules with a rolling pin and sprinkle on top.

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