Saturday, November 27, 2010

Banana Cream Pie--Salted Caramel Style

photo by Anthony Palatta

This was my take on a recipe from a new show on the Food Network called Desserts First. On the show, chef Anne Thornton combines the banana pudding recipe off the box of Nabsico Nilla Wafers with a crushed Nilla Wafer crust.  She then coats her bananas in a caramel sauce mixed with a teaspoon of fleur de sel. The original recipe can be found here.

After watching Thornton make the pie on TV and reading some of the comments, I decided to make a few modifications. First, I switched out her egg-based pudding recipe for the cornstarch-based banana cream pie filling recipe from 500 Pies, which I've used previously to great success. (You can read my post on the pie here.) I did that because her filling looked a little grainy on TV. Also, a few readers complained that the filling lost its shape when you cut a slice from the pie.

Another complaint I saw in the reviews section was that the creamy caramel sauce recipe was a bit difficult to make. I decided to use a different recipe for that too. In a saucepan, cover 2 cups of sugar with just enough water to cover, but not too much, boil until browned (without stirring), then turn off the heat and while stirring, slowly add heavy cream and any flavorings you like. I went for amaretto.

Finally, I assembled the pie. I began with the baked and cooled nilla wafer crumb crust, which I made in a springform rather than a pie plate, for extra wow factor. Next I added a layer of sliced bananas coated in salted caramel sauce. Then I topped that with pie filling, nilla wafers, then bananas and pie filling again.

Cover with whipped cream and then chill. When you're ready to serve, drizzle the top with caramel sauce and sprinkle extra nilla wafer crumbs.

The pie was a decadent mix of whipped cream, vanilla cream, banana, hints of almond flavor (because of the addition of amaretto to the caramel and almond extract to the whipped cream), and of course, salted caramel. My caramel could have been saltier, but this was my first try, so I wanted to go easy. My one critique; the crust was a bit soggier than I expected, so I might use less butter than suggested in the recipe.

In short, quite a bit of work, but worth it!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Put on Your Best Chiffon for Thanksgiving

photo by Anthony Palatta

Any idiot can make this pie, which is a Thanksgiving classic in my home.  It says something about what an idiot I am that it took me so long to master it!

When I was a kid, my mother always made this light, pudding-like pumpkin chiffon pie. In fact, I never knew there was such a thing as "normal" pumpkin pie. You know, the kind with the rich, dense filling, almost like a cheesecake, but without the lightness of cream cheese. Now, don't get me wrong. I love that kind of pumpkin pie, but I also realize it's not for all tastes.

So if you're looking for an easy and delicious pumpkin dessert for your Thanksgiving table that has mass appeal, look no further. I'm telling you, you can't screw up this no-bake recipe, and your friends and family will be delighted and amazed by the results.

Start by making a crust. (Either do it yourself or bake off one from the store. I like the Pillsbury version if I have to buy one.)  This is the only part of the pie you have to stick in the oven.

While the crust cools, mix a packet of gelatin with some cold water and set it aside to congeal. Next, grab a medium saucepan and mix a can of mashed pumpkin with egg yolks (save the whites, leaving them on the counter to get to room temperature), cinnamon, ginger, allspice, brown sugar, and milk. Stir the ingredients together over a low to medium fire. Let the mixture come to a boil for a minute, then take it off the heat and stir in your gelatin.

It's very important to add the gelatin at this point.  One year I forgot, and the pie ran all over everyone's plates. It was a mess. And it doesn't work to add the gelatin later. I know. I tried.

After setting the pumpkin in the freezer to cool for 40 minutes (you can put your saucepan directly in the freezer), whip up the egg whites you saved with six tablespoons of sugar until you get firm peaks.  ("Like snow," my mother told me.)  Fold the meringue into your pumpkin and dump it into the cooled pie crust.  Set it in the fridge overnight to set.  You're done.

My mom has also frozen it, wrapped well in aluminum foil, with great results.

Warning:  After you've gone chiffon, there's no going back.

Here's my mom's exact recipe:

Ingredients (for a 9-inch pie)

1/4 cup of cold water
1 packet of gelatin
3/4 cup of brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1-1/3 cups of mashed pumpkin (in a 15 oz. can--just use the whole can.  You don't have to measure it.)
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup milk

3 large egg whites
6 tbsp sugar

1 pie crust (you can buy them in the supermarket’s frozen section)


  1. Combine gelatin and water and set aside.
  2. Mix brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, pumpkin, egg yolks, and milk in a saucepan.  ("You don't have to be so careful with the measurements," my mom says.  "Extra cinnamon and sugar is good too.  But don't go heavy on the allspice.  That's powerful.")
  3. Cook over low while stirring until it boils.
  4. Boil one minute.
  5. Stir in soft gelatin.
  6. Cool in the freezer for 40 minutes.
  7. Remove from freezer, and beat until smooth.  ("Eh, that part's not so important," my mother says.)
  8. Beat egg whites and sugar in a separate bowl until white and fluffy like snow, then slowly fold them into the pumpkin mixture.  ("Just dump it all in and mix it," my mom says.  "It doesn't matter.")
  9. Pour into pie crust and refrigerate overnight.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Butter Cookie Experiments

photo by Anthony Palatta

With the holidays coming, I've been playing around with some different recipes for sugar and butter cookies.

This one's perfection if you like butter cookies.  It couldn't be simpler:  the ingredients are butter (lots of it!), sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, flour, and salt.

After mixing all the ingredients, you chill the dough for at least an hour.  Preheat the oven to 325, then roll out the dough on a surface well sprinkled with flour. (The flour and chilling are key, as this is incredibly sticky and soft dough.)  Cut out the shapes you want, set them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, reroll the scraps, cut again. A third time might be too much, as the dough will be too warm to work with.

Sprinkle the cookies with any colored sugar you like, and then bake for about 10 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to turn brown.

In the picture, you see that I tried icing the cookies. That was sugar overkill. The cookies are rich enough on their own. All they needed was a bit of crunch from a dusting of colored sugar.

Here's the exact recipe:

Aaron's Butter Cookies

2 cups butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 egg yolks
3 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
½ tsp salt

Cream the butter and sugar, add the rest of the ingredients, and then chill the dough for an hour.  Preheat the oven to 325.  Roll it out, about 1/4 inch thick, cut out shapes, and transfer the cookies to a parchment-lined cookie sheet.  Sprinkle with colored sugar, then bake about 10 minutes.  Remove the cookies on the parchment from the cookie sheets and let them cool.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies

photo by Anthony Palatta
These sweet and spicy cookies ring through your palate like a complex symphony, hitting high and low notes and a few in between.  And they're amazingly easy to make.

I found the recipe in a magazine of holiday cookie suggestions from Betty Crocker. It begins with the mix for their sugar cookies, to which you add an egg, chocolate chips, and butter melted with a "mexican hot chocolate tablet."

When I read the word "tablet," I was expecting a pill-sized nib of chocolate, the kind of thing you use to make Easter egg dye. So I was surprised to find that Mexican hot chocolate tablets are actually a large and thick hexagonal disc of chocolate, the size of a hamburger patty. 

I found two different brands of Mexican hot chocolate at a local supermarket that has a large Spanish-speaking clientele. I went with the Nestle version for the cute picture of the grandma on the box. 

What makes these cookies "Mexican" is the mix of cinnamon with chocolate, which gives the finished cookie an unexpectedly earthy bite that contrasts with the sweetness of the chocolate chips. The last time I baked these cookies, I made them small, so that they were little bites, with a brittle, crackling crust and a fudgy center. 

It's the kind of dessert that makes your friends pause, then smile in recognition, then reach for another.