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Beyond the Split: The Bakeable Banana
The New York Times

A Banana may have the slouch of a rock star and a cool leather jacket, but it is treated like an average Joe. Tossed into a briefcase or lunchbox, slid across the seat of a car and eaten on the fly, the banana is so neat, so tidy, so portable, it barely registers. Yet when baked, this out-of-the-starting-gate snack achieves an eloquence that is persuasive.

Forget about the humble quick bread you make with bruised bananas and consider this: bananas wrapped in puff pastry, offering their crisp outer garments supple textural contrast; banana pudding steamed in a fluted mold, as heady and intoxicating as fine pipe tobacco; banana spears dipped in batter and deep-fried - the appealing land of cushion and crunch.

Surely the most accommodating fruit, the banana is inexpensive, available and easy to peel and slice. It is there when you reach for it: no need to wait for summer's end to come across a good bunch, no need to prod or sniff. The banana wears its ripeness on its sleeve, and once past its callow youth, is bound to be pretty good company.

In baking with bananas, I discovered type to be largely irrelevant. Though a good eating banana is obviously essential - a starchy plantain is not the way to go - nuances in flavor that might be noticeable when eaten out of hand lose definition in the oven, melting into the musky pungency that is unmistakably just banana.

For dumplings, turnovers or fritters, medium-ripe bananas are best. They have full flavor but enough body to take the heat without breaking down. Care must be taken to wrap up the banana quickly before it has a chance to turn on you. Nothing is worse than finding a swollen gray-brown banana under a crown of dough. But once wrapped, the banana holds up well, succumbing only to softness, not discoloration, when baked.

Steamed puddings prefer their bananas dead ripe: here the banana is a moistening and flavoring agent, not a textural concern.

Potential pitfalls? Too much sugar. The sugar requirements of an average dessert may well tip the scales with a baked banana. It is best to let the banana take advantage of its own natural sweetness and flavor, then get out of their way.

Perhaps the best thing about baking with bananas is that the fruit need only be hot to be done, with no anxious balancing act between fruit and crust required. When the dough is done, the dessert is done, too, and neither is the worse for wear.

The banana is far from a shut-in. Chefs love its intensity. At Esca in Manhattan, diners can order Meredith Kurtzman's individual banana upside-down cakes, which she makes with a brown sugar and butter glaze, slices of banana and a rich cake batter with crème fraîche and hazelnut flour. The dish is accented with roast hazelnuts and served with banana ice cream.

In SoHo, Andy Gomez, the pastry chef at Balthazar, creates individual banana tarte Tatins by lining Teflon molds with burnt sugar, shingling medium-ripe banana slices across the bottom, and tucking a round of puff pastry on top. The oven heat intensifies the sweetness of the fruit in the dessert, which he serves with a cool banana sabayon.

Baked banana desserts welcome a broad banner of sauces. Though their lushness needs a chill to tame them, nothing really fruity or acidic works in their favor. Instead, the usual embarras de richesses - cream, chocolate, butter, caramel, braced with a pinch of salt - will serve these desserts very well indeed.

In terms of portion, it is best to start small: a little baked banana goes a long way. Let it take you there.

Steamed Banana Pudding
Time: About 2 hours

3/8 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup soft bread crumbs (from 2 ounces bread)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup currants or chopped pecans (optional)
3 ounces unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing pan
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
8 ounces Medjool dates, pitted (12 dates)
1/4 cup dry sherry
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 very ripe bananas (12 ounces unpeeled weight).

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Bring large pot of water to boil over high heat. Generously butter 8-cup pudding or soufflé mold.

Stir dry ingredients together in medium bowl. Add currants or pecans, if desired, and toss to combine.

In food processor, cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, stopping machine frequently to scrape bowl down. Add dates and pulse until fine. With machine running, drizzle in sherry; scrape bowl.

In another small bowl, whisk eggs and vanilla together; pour slowly into processor with machine running.

Peel and quarter bananas, and add to processor; pulse until finely chopped. Transfer mixture to medium bowl.

Fold dry ingredients lightly into fruit purée. Turn into prepared mold, and cover snugly with greased lid or aluminum foil. Place pudding in large roasting pan; pour hot water halfway up sides. Bake until pudding has risen and tests clean with toothpick or skewer, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Cool 5 minutes in pan, then invert onto rack. Slice and serve warm with whipped cream, caramel sauce or vanilla mousseline. To rewarm, place pudding on sheet pan, cover with clean, damp cloth and heat in 300 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes.

Yield: 8 servings.

Banana Turnovers
Time: 1 hour plus chilling time

1 cup half-and-half
3 tablespoons sugar
Pinch salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Flour for dusting dough
1 pound puff pastry dough, preferably Dufour, defrosted but cold
2 large ripe bananas
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar.

In a small heavy saucepan, combine half- and-half, 2 tablespoons sugar and the salt; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl stir together cornstarch and remaining sugar. Add 2 yolks and stir until mixture is smooth.

Ladle about 1/4 cup simmering half-and- half into egg yolk mixture and whisk well to combine. Transfer mixture into simmering liquid, whisking vigorously. Allow pastry cream to bubble for 5 seconds, then remove pan from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Transfer to small bowl, cover well with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

Unfold puff pastry dough on floured surface and dust with flour. Using a pizza cutter, divide dough evenly into six 5-inch squares; arrange squares on work surface with a point facing you.

Working quickly, peel bananas and cut into thirds. Slice each third lengthwise in two pieces. Place 1 tablespoon pastry cream in lower center of each dough square, 2 banana slices on top and dab with more cream. Brush dough edges lightly with water. Fold points of each square down to form triangular turnovers. Press edges of each with fork, and refrigerate on parchment- lined sheet pan for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, place oven rack in lower position and heat oven to 375 degrees.

In small bowl, whisk egg whites until frothy; brush on turnovers. Sift confectioners' sugar over surface of each. Bake until well-risen and deeply browned, about 40 minutes, turning sheet pan once halfway through. Serve warm with vanilla mousseline, caramel sauce or vanilla ice cream.

Yield: 6 servings.

Caramel Sauce
Time: 1/2 hour

1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Pinch salt
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.

In a heavy, medium-size saucepan, combine half cup water and sugar; stir briefly to combine. Cover and bring to simmer over medium heat; uncover the pot, and add the corn syrup. Continue boiling until the sugar begins to color, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low.

In a small saucepan, bring cream and salt to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and keep warm.

When caramel is deep golden brown (about 345 degrees), remove from heat. After 30 seconds add hot cream little by little, whisking to dissolve caramel. Stir in butter and vanilla. Serve at room temperature.

Yield: About 2 cups.

Vanilla Mousseline
Time: 20 minutes plus 1 hour's chilling

1 egg
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch salt
1 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks.

Bring a small pot of water to a simmer. In bowl of electric mixer, combine egg and sugar. Place bowl over water, and whisk steadily until mixture is hot (about 130 degrees) and foamy, about 5 minutes.

Remove bowl from heat, and whip in mixer until mixture is thick and slightly cooled, about 3 minutes. Drizzle in melted butter, vanilla and salt. Continue whipping until cool and thick. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, and chill for at least one hour. Just before serving, fold cream lightly into mixture.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups.
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