Banana Pudding for all my friends!

The tastiest banana pudding also happens to be the easiest to make!

The tastiest banana pudding also happens to be the easiest to make!

I’ve been on this banana pudding kick lately, which has greatly benefitted my friends and neighbors and their kids. Even though Regina and my own kids love the stuff, we simply couldn’t eat our way through the three huge batches I’ve made recently. We needed help and so Julie and Tim and Zach and Sarah have gotten containers in the past week; I believe they shared them with their kids but it’s possible they didn’t. This banana pudding has a way of making your forget your vows, disregard your children’s welfare, and consider committing higher crimes. Zach refers to the pudding as his “afternoon delight” which conjures up images better left unimagined.

The recipe for this banana pudding is old-fashioned and simple to make. You don’t start from scratch, you start from mixes, like lots of the great American comfort foods of the past fifty years. Canned milk and pudding mix and boxed cookies. Super-easy and super-yummy!

If you’ve ever been to Magnolia Bakery either in NYC or LA you might notice that their banana pudding tastes remarkably similar to this. Well, it should. It’s their recipe and I happily cribbed it. Because it is superb!

You will need:

  • 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 box (3.4 oz) Jello brand instant vanilla pudding
  • 1.5 cups cold water
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 4 cups sliced ripe bananas
  • 1 12-ounce box of Nilla wafers (use the Nabisco kind)

Now do this:

In a stand-up mixer whip together the condensed milk, pudding mix, and water for about two minutes at medium speed. You could use an electric hand mixer if you don’t have a stand-up Kitchen-Aid mixer, of course. Make sure after you’ve whipped it that you don’t see any yellow specks, which would be undissolved pudding powder; beat it a bit more if you need to. Pour pudding into a big mixing bowl and chill until completely set, maybe three hours.

When the pudding is set whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold the whipped cream gently but completely into the pudding mix. It should be well-combined and not streaky.

Into a big deep bowl put about a third of the cookies in a layer. Top with a third of the bananas and a third of the creamy pudding mix. Make three layers. Chill for at least four hours so the Nilla wafers can soften nicely.

I like to make it the day before. It improves with a full overnight chill-out. It will last three or four days refrigerated although I have no doubt you and your fam will polish it off before that!

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I like this cute pink pudding goblet. Thanks for the loaner Julie Semple!

Atlantic Beach Pie

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Amazing Atlantic Beach Pie!

My good friend Margaret turned me on to this recipe, knowing how much I love to make pies and eat pies. One of my favorite pies is Key Lime and this interesting riff on the citrus custard pie turned out to be truly phenomenal. And a breeze to make.

I’m not going to get into a long dissertation on the origins of this pie. I’ve included a link to the original recipe below. Check it out if you want a bit more backstory. But in short, apparently it’s a local specialty of the North Carolina coast. This recipe is from a restaurant called Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill. The proprietor, Bill Smith, says it takes all of four seconds to make. Although it wasn’t quite that quick, it was incredibly easy.

The most intriguing aspect of the pie is the salty-sweet crust made from crushed saltines. You pair that with a tart lemon-lime custard and pillowy whipped cream and the pie just sings.

This is Bill Smith’s recipe with my notes:

Atlantic Beach Pie

For the crust:

1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers

1/3 to 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter

3 tablespoons sugar

For the filling:

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup lemon or lime juice or a mix of the two

Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust. You can use a food processor or your hands. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press into an 8 inch pie pan. Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes or until the crust colors a little.

While the crust is cooling (it doesn’t need to be cold), beat the egg yolks into the milk, then beat in the citrus juice. It is important to completely combine these ingredients. Pour into the shell and bake for 16 minutes until the filling has set. The pie needs to be completely cold to be sliced. Serve with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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I didn’t have an eight-inch pie pan. Nine-inch pans are much more common, so I extended the recipe for the crust a little to make a bit more. I used a full two sleeves of saltines, which I put into a big ziploc bag and crushed with a meat mallet. I left the cracker crumbs pretty chunky. I increased the butter to a little over a half-cup (one stick plus another tablespoon or so) of unsalted butter. I used four tablespoons of sugar in the crust and added 2 tablespoons of water to help make the crust more paste-like and easier to press into the pie pan.

For the filling I didn’t adjust the quantities at all, but I did use a mixture of fresh lemon juice and fresh key lime juice. The end result was excellent — smooth and sweet and tart all at the same time. 

After I baked the pie and the filling was fully set, I set it on a cooling rack to come to room temperature. And then I chilled it for about twenty minutes in the fridge. Meanwhile I prepared some whipped cream to complete the pie. 

Bill’s recipe calls for whipped cream but he doesn’t provide any measurements. I whipped two cups of heavy cream at medium speed until I got medium peaks. I then added two tablespoons of powdered sugar to the cream and beat it at medium-high until I got stiff peaks. A quick tip: when making whipped cream always chill the whisk attachment of your mixer and the mixer bowl with the cream already in it. The cream will whip up faster and fluffier if everything starts chilled. 

Finally, for the finishing touch on each cut slice I sprinkled a bit of Maldon Sea Salt, that lovely large-flaked sea salt from England. It adds a bit of saline crunch on the palate that kicks up the sweetness of the pie.

The original post:

http://www.npr.org/2013/04/11/176279512/a-north-carolina-pie-that-elicits-an-oh-my-god-response

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The chunky-style saltine crust is what differentiates this stellar pie from any old boring lemon pie.

Pineapple Carpaccio with Homemade Coconut Sorbet

So yummy, so fresh.

Those of you lucky enough to have eaten at Red Ginger Pan-Asian Kitchen, my long-defunct restaurant in Half Moon Bay, will recognize this dessert as one of my signature sweet offerings. It was a fan favorite, healthy and refreshing. And very easy to put together.

To make this dish I shave slightly under-ripe pineapple on a Japanese Benriner mandolin about an eighth-of-an-inch thick. I lay the slices of pineapple on a plate and top with minced crystallized ginger, some crushed (salted) macadamia nuts, and a scoop of homemade coconut sorbet. I drizzle a little honey over the whole thing and then usually add a little fresh hand-torn mint leaf (although I seem to have forgotten it this time around).

The coconut sorbet is easy. I take two cans of organic coconut milk and add one cup of sugar. I heat it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. I stir in a tablespoon of Malibu rum and chill the mixture for about two hours. I freeze it in an ice cream maker until airy and creamy. It’s stupid-easy.

Anyway, this dessert is a keeper, a crowd-pleaser, and with a little planning (and some special but inexpensive equipment) a cinch to make. And, as an added bonus, it’s totally vegan!

Try it some time!

“Concord” Grape Sorbet

Man, those are some fine-lookin’ grapes!

Concord grapes are an American innovation, first cultivated by some guy named Ephraim Wales Bull in 1849 in Concord, Massachusetts. Apparently he won some prizes and the grape become famous for its robust sweetness and its distinctive bluish-purple color. For years it was the favored table grape of the Northeast until modern seedless varieties overtook it in popularity; the concord has a thickish skin and a large seed, after all. Still, the Concord grape is the number one variety for juice and jelly; it’s essential “grapiness” and stunning color have become synonymous with the jelly in that oh-so-American invention, the PB&J sandwich. And that purple grape juice from Welch’s that millions of kids drink every day is naturally Concord. But although we are all familiar with that Concord flavor, we are mostly unfamiliar with the actual grape. The “table grape” market is pretty much dominated by the ubiquitous seedless reds and greens, which can be quite good, but are mostly mediocre in flavor. You’ll occasionally find fantastic new varieties like Witch Fingers or Cotton Candy grapes, but generally speaking there’s not a whole lot out there. Even when you see Concords for sale, they are only briefly available.

Now Concords are a late fall crop and so if you run across any supposed Concords being sold in summer, they are probably not true Concords, but something very similar, like the Niabell Grapes I picked up a few days ago from Gelson’s Market. Niabells are almost identical to Concords in flavor and texture — relatively thick skin, satisfyingly gelatinous flesh, huge sugar, and a big seed in the middle. But I confess that the seed is troublesome for me. I’m an admittedly spoiled modern grape consumer and for me spitting out the seeds is a pain in the ass. However, I like the flavor of Concords (and their “Concordy” cousins) and so I bought four pounds.

Very close to concords.

When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, right? Well, when life gives me lemons, I make a lemon sorbet and add a Grey Goose floater! Just the way I am, I suppose. So when life gives me really fantastic and delicious Concordesque grapes during the hottest week of the year, well ya know I gotta make me some sorbet! I made a killer “Concord” Grape Sorbet not three days ago. No vodka this time; it was two in the afternoon, which is a bit early even for me.

This is how I made it…

Ah, precious purple grape juice!

I took the four pounds of Niabell grapes and pulled them off the stem. I rinsed them well under cold water and drained the grapes in a colander for a few minutes. I put them in a big pot with one-and-a-half cups of water and one-and-a-half cups of granulated sugar. I added a tiny pinch of salt for just the barest background note of savory. I covered the pot with a tight-fitting lid and brought the grapes up to a boil over medium-high heat. I removed the lid, turned the heat down to low, and simmered the grapes for about 30 minutes, gently stirring every few minutes. I then strained the grapes through a fine-meshed Chinois (conical strainer) although any fine-meshed strainer of any shape would work. Also, a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth does the trick. Next I gently stirred the grapes around the strainer to drain as much liquid out the grapes as possible, being careful not to smash the grapes as I did it. And then I let the grapes sit undisturbed in the strainer for fifteen minutes, letting gravity work its magic.

The color of the sorbet is absolutely striking. What would you call this? Magenta?

I managed to get just about five cups of grape sorbet base. I transferred the juice to a smaller container and chilled it completely in the fridge, about three hours. I then froze it in my ice cream maker for about 30 minutes, or until it was very well-churned and airy, almost to the consistency of slightly icy soft-serve.

Now I have a pretty fancy Italian ice cream maker which costs hundreds of bucks, but I get the same results with a basic Cuisinart model that costs about $50. If you don’t have any kind of ice cream maker, you could use this base to make a granita by pouring it into a shallow casserole, putting it on a shelf in the freezer and letting it slowly freeze. Every half-hour or so fluff the mixture with a fork until you have a nice, flaky consistency. This base is very sugary, which means it won’t necessarily freeze into harder crystals, so if you plan on making a granita, you may wish to halve the amount of granulated sugar when you boil your base.

Just another money shot of these sexy orbs.

The sorbet was delicious and very refreshing on a hot day. If you stumble across grapes as flavorful as these Niabells, pick ’em up and make dessert!

A couple of notes:

I’m not really a grape expert, so don’t hold me to any real historical accuracy in my short exposition on Concords.

This post makes me want to listen to Flight of the Conchords, that hilarious Kiwi comedy music duo. Think about it.

Season of the Witch Fingers

This visually interesting and delicious grape is a crowd-pleaser!

I shop all over this city hunting down food for my clients and I think I know pretty well where to find the best of…whatever. If it’s white truffles or Armenian feta or galangal or Korean chili paste I know where to find it. I shop at specialty markets and specialty butchers and cheesemongers and mushroom farmers and boysenberry purveyors and I know most retail locations for the most esoteric of unusual ethnic goodies; but for my job I rely heavily on a single store for the majority of my needs.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating — I’m a big fan of Gelson’s Market at Century City. I can get all the usual stuff — organic dairy and sugary cereals and frozen stuff and good bread — but the butcher (Siggy or Ziggy) is first-rate and the produce manager John is an interesting and dedicated guy. You might, upon reading this, think I’m getting some kind of Gelson’s kick-back. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m a fan of the staff, the management, and the products and I don’t mind sharing that.

While I can get better tomatoes at any of the Westside’s Farmer’s Markets and I can get a broader selection of organics at any Whole Foods, the produce department is the one best conventional super-market produce departments I’ve ever seen. John must constantly be sourcing and scouring and hunting down new and interesting farmers and products. This year I’ve had fabulous melons and stone fruit and berries, but I’m excited about these Witch Finger grapes, which I’ve only seen starting last year, and only at Gelson’s. These pointy little grapes are specially cultivated by the fine people at The Grapery (also producer of the fantastic Cotton Candy grape which will probably show in stores shortly), a grape-centric producer in San Joaquin Valley. If it’s anything like last year, these cute grapes will be gone in three weeks, so snap them up if you see them.

The Witch Fingers are sweet with a hint of tartness. They have a nice little snap to them and are irresistible as a snacking grape. Probably very nice with a little salty cheese and some hazelnuts.

I love them Witchy Fingers!

Check out last year’s post: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/witch-finger-grapes-are-an-unusual-variety/

More into on The Grapery: http://www.grapery.biz/

More info on Gelson’s: http://www.gelsons.com

Super-Sweet Dried Pineapple

Glorious dried pineapple!

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that I’ve been on this dehydrator kick. I got a new dehydrator at work to make a few things for a “raw” diet and I’ve also playing around with different dried fruit, beef jerky, and kale chips. I like the ease of the dehydrator (if not the clean-up) — you prep your fruit in a few minutes, you stick it in the unit, and you just dry it until it’s done. This pineapple was a snap to prep. The actual drying time was interminable, but for over a full day the house was filled with a fantastic, sweet, heady aroma of tropical fruit. My wife Regina said the house smelled like Hawaii.

The end result was just incredible and highly addictive. Everyone who’s tried it has loved it utterly; my boy Bennet was hooked instantly and I had to hide the container from him before he ate the whole damn thing. The pineapple was chewy and candy-sweet. The pineapple flavor was concentrated, robust, and almost caramel-like in intensity. This dried pineapple was truly epic.

It helps to start with super-fresh and tasty fruit.

It’s very easy to make.

I started with ten pounds of pre-cut pineapple. Of course if you start with actual fruit (peel it, core it, cut it) it’ll be cheaper, but I was less interested in economy than I was in ease of production. So I took fresh chunks of pineapple and cut them down to make sure they were of uniform thickness — about a half-inch.

I put the pineapple chunks into a big bowl and tossed them with three cups of organic granulated sugar. I let the pineapple sit for one hour and then placed the fruit chunks on the dehydrator trays. In the bottom of the bowl remained about two cups of sugary pineapple juice, which I strained. This delicious syrup I used later as a sweetener for a batch of amazing tropical iced tea. A yummy byproduct of this one project turned into another project — no waste!

I dried the pineapple at 135ºF for a staggering 30 hours! Pineapple has a lot of moisture to dry out, so be patient. After about 20 hours I started checking every hour or so. I would eat a piece and make sure it wasn’t too soft or wet. It should be dry but not brittle. Chewy but not tooth-threatening.

When it was fully dried I stored it in two airtight containers. My yield was eight cups of dried pineapple.

 

You might like this recipe too: dried cherries in the dehydrator.

https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/dried-rainier-cherries/

Sweet and chewy and tasty.

Dried Rainier Cherries

I love making my own healthy snacks at home!

This post is part of an ongoing series very informally called the “Dehydrator Chronicles”. Yes, I got a dehydrator about a month ago and I’ve been playing around with a few different things. I made some raw almond bread, dried apricots, beef jerky, and right now the house is filled with the pungent aroma of cashew-miso kale chips (another three hours to go!). I strongly urge you to get one. At about $60 for a basic dehydrator, you can have a great tool for making all kinds of healthy stuff. If you’re a raw foodist or a vegan or vegetarian or if you just want to broaden your skill-set in the kitchen, making dried fruit and other snacks is very easy, kinda fun (especially if you’re project-oriented like myself), and it helps foster in yourself or your family a deeper understanding of what and how we eat and the connections food has to our physical and psychic health. I make a lot of our food at home, and I absolutely love knowing our food was fresh when I cook it and highly nutritious when we eat it.

I love the idea of making snacks and I love dried fruit. Dried cherries are particularly nice — the natural sugars get concentrated and the resulting fruit is sweet, tart, and super-chewy. The apricots I made last week were so delicious that when I saw these beautiful Rainier cherries on sale I snapped up nine pounds. Fresh, the cherries were plump and moist and sweet and just lip-smakingly delicious!

It’s very hard to get a sense of how gorgeous these cherries are from this over-saturated pic. But trust me, they are beautiful!

I’ve never dried cherries before, but I anticipated that prepping the cherries would be a pain in the ass! And it was. First I rinsed the cherries and drained them well. And then I had to deal with pitting them; it took me about an hour to remove all the cherry stones, even though I enlisted the aid of my eight-year-old, who pitted several hundred cherries and ate a good 15% of his product. I paid for his labor in cherries, and both employer and employee were happy with the arrangement.

In addition to underage child labor, I highly recommend getting a cherry pitter. There are certainly very good hand-held pitters to be found (on the web or at places like Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, and Surfas), but for quantities like this you need what I’ve got pictured below. It’s got a suction base (which even worked on my wooden table) and you simply stem the cherries and put a few in the trough up top. A cherry rolls into place underneath the spring-loaded pit-plunger and you press down with your hand firmly. As the plunger returns to its original position the stone-free cherry rolls out into a waiting bowl. In all honesty I found this particular pitter only about 92% effective (a few cherries still had pits in them), but still very helpful. It was around $40 and very much worth the price. I’m already envisioning other cherry dishes I can make. Cherry pie, anyone?

Okay, you really need to get this cherry pitter if you plan to dry cherries. BTW, you can the dehydrator in the background.

Dehydrate cherries cut-side up!

After pitting all the cherries I cut them in half and placed them cut-side up on the dehydrator trays. I set the dehydrator to 135ºF and continued drying them until they were no longer moist or soft. They were chewy and sweet and yummy. These cherries took about eight hours to fully dry, although many factors can affect drying times (humidity in the air, the amount of sugar and moisture in the fruit, and the effectiveness of your brand of dehydrator) so don’t be surprised if yours take a shorter or longer time to dry. Just check them periodically.

Juicy and sweet Rainier cherries just prior to drying.

The only surprising thing about drying the cherries is how much they shrink! Nine pounds of fresh cherries (minus a half-pound or so lost in the pitting process) turned into four cups (packed) of dried cherries. We ate them in less than a week.

Was it worth the labor and time making homemade dried cherries? From my standpoint, absolutely! I encourage you to make the effort.

Chewy, sweet, a little tart. A very nice dried Rainier cherry!

Other tales in the Dehydrator Chronicles:

Beef Jerky:  https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/beef-jerky-bonanza/

Almond bread:  https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/vegan-tomato-avocado-sandwich-on-raw-almond-bread/