Not Yer Mama’s Banana Split
It’s the dead of winter and I’m back in Seattle after a week spent languidly wallowing in the warm tradewinds and easy sunshine of the Caribbean. I’ve had my hot fun, and now there isn’t even a glimmer of vacation on the horizon until summer pops her fickle head out from the clouds. I have been accused of being a touch on the stubborn side, and I ALWAYS want what I can’t have. Right now that’s sun and the pints of ice cream that come with it.
A hot August night invariably takes me back to my eighth grade summer; the year I discovered fast cars and learned to avoid the fast boys that often drove them. The pegged-pants and Hypercolor set would cruise the sweaty asphalt of Blue Lakes Boulevard into the wee hours. To my young mind, those high school-and-beyond boys with spiked mullets, Stussy shirts, and Drakkar Noir-drenched necks were the embodiment of cool. They even wore their Oakley sunglasses at night.
My girlfriends and I would spend hours hairspraying our Sun-In streaked, permed bangs into an upside-down waterfall of fringe that would put a rooster comb to shame. We painted on a second skin of Guess jeans (of which I proudly had 15 pairs- a school-wide record) and topped the ensemble with an Esprit sweatshirt. Seventeen squirts of Clinique Happy later and we were ready to hit the cruise to the tune of LeTrim’s “Cars that Go Boom.”
On the best of nights we’d convince someone’s older sister to drive us up and down Blue Lakes for a few laps. On the worst, one of us would have to stew in the embarrassment of her mother dropping us off in the Baskin Robbins parking lot in curlers and a bathrobe. More often than not it was the worst of nights, and most often of all, it was my mother. She always gave me just enough cash to buy a sundae at Baskin Robbins. She hoped she hadn’t given me quite enough to pool together with my friends so we could convince some predatory college dropout to buy us a six pack of Jack Daniels Lynchburg Lemonade.
That was a summer on the cusp; I hadn’t yet French-kissed a boy (to my abject horror) but I had smoked a joint of terribly weak Idaho dirtweed. Half the time we’d hustle our shoulders out the top of our sweatshirts and try to pout like Cindy Crawford. The other half we’d burst into girlish peals of laughter and lick ice cream off our chins as it melted too fast.
We spent a lot of time in Baskin Robbins trying to look like one of us had a Ford Festiva parked nearby and we’d merely stopped in for a scoop. I always ordered a banana split; traditional ice cream flavors, traditional syrups, with nuts and a cherry on top. It wasn’t a particularly cool thing to order, and it certainly didn’t go with any of the random cans/bottles of alcohol we’d managed to beg borrow or steal from other revelers, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up on that bastion of my youth. Come to find out, I’m still not.
As recent as the summer I was pregnant with Bentley, I must have eaten 20 banana splits. After that I took a two-year hiatus both for the sake of my thighs and my over-sated taste buds. I don’t know what has come over me this week, be it the weather or a heightened sense of nostalgia after spending my vacation acting like an overgrown pre-teen, but I’m back to craving banana splits with a vengeance.
Of course now that I’m safely ensconced in the snobbish years of my life (yes, I can tell those are Manonos, not Manolos, just like I can taste the difference between Wagyu and two buck chuck) I realize not all banana splits are created equal. While I knew I *needed* a banana split, I knew I *wanted* my banana split to be transcendent of the sundae genre.
I cast out an informal twitter poll soliciting thoughts on the best and worst parts of a split. Shockingly, the least liked aspect of the dish was also its namesake- the banana. Folks found the banana mealy, too big, and unnecessary for the enjoyment of the ice cream. Some people liked peanuts but thought they were too crunchy in contrast with the soft ice cream. Several thought the texture of the entire dish was too mushy, what with a limp banana, melting ice cream and sometimes even a generous plop of whipped cream on top.
From all the responses, I gleaned that variability in texture would be welcome, the banana needed to be altered, and while all the flavors were ok by most, it was just too much dessert if you were to actually finish one. I took those lessons to heart and created a banana split using, and hopefully improving, all the components of the original.
For the strawberry and vanilla ice cream I remained about as classic as I’m capable of. I made traditional ice cream base for the strawberry (albeit in a sous vide water bath rather than on the stovetop) then mingled strawberries and their puree into the 24 hour aged custard during the last 15 minutes of the churning cycle. I used a dry ice technique to make the vanilla ice cream, which results in a lovely, creamy texture, however it’s best made to be eaten that day as over time dry ice-made ice cream solidifies and loses the air, becoming too ice-like.
I changed it up for the chocolate scoop by deconstructing the elements of ice cream and putting them back together in a different way. Since with the dry ice ice cream I used cream but no eggs, I alternated that with the chocolate by using eggs but no cream. I froze hemispheres of egg yolk mixed with simple syrup, then dipped them like bon bons into a dark chocolate topping. Thus, the elements of ice cream presented in an inverted fashion.
The all-important but much-maligned banana got the tuile treatment. I followed a Heston Blumenthal recipe for banana tuiles- that is, thin wafers typically made of flour, egg whites and sugar- but I made a template shaped like a banana rather than the more usual circle. Because they are paper-thin, they don’t rent an abundance of real estate in the mouthful, and their crunchy texture lends contrast to the creamier elements of the dessert.
Along with taste and texture, temperature is also a factor in flavor. Since the ice creams would be frozen, the inverted chocolate cold, and the banana tuile room temperature, I wanted to introduce a hot factor. I opted to spherize hot fudge using a reverse spherification process so that when you initially burst the sphere with your spoon, it gushes out and provides contrast against the many cold components.
I like butterscotch more than typical caramel because the butter adds depth and the near-burnt quality provides a strong flavor contrast with the borderline cloying sweetness of the other elements. I made butterscotch syrup thickened to pudding consistency with agar agar and dotted the plate with it.
The strawberry “sauce” is simply caviar or pearls made from sweetened strawberry puree using normal (aka not reverse) spherification. These were fun to play with as they changed texture rapidly upon sudden, drastic temperature fluctuations. I wound up serving some of them room temperature and some frozen for added sensory titillation.
The only spectrum of texture not covered by the other elements is something that is soft but dry. The ice cream is soft, but obviously melts upon contact with a warm tongue. I wanted to powder an element so there would be something delicate and effervescent that would disappear in the mouth but leave lingering flavor. Initially I contemplated powdering peanut butter oil using tapioca maltodextrin, but the flavor wasn’t strong enough to hold up to the various elements of the dessert. I settled on pulverizing peanut brittle to the consistency of polenta. It is so good I ate it by the spoonful, which led me to the realization that peanut brittle is sharp the way it is so you don’t eat too much at once. This stuff tastes just like the insides of a butterfinger, but without all the preservatives.
The sum total of the banana split is this: 1. Sous vide strawberry ice cream 2. Dry ice vanilla ice cream 3. Inverted chocolate egg cream 4. Banana tuile 5. Butterscotch pudding 6. Strawberry pearls 7. Hot fudge spheres 8. Peanut brittle powder. Can you see how all the tastes, temperatures and textures would work perfectly together without overwhelming the palate from the saccharine overload common in a traditional banana split?
This post has grown too long to include all of the recipes, though I will provide the recipe for Heston Blumenthal’s banana tuiles since it’s a fun one. Just cut the tuile template in the shape of a banana instead of a circle and you’re on your way to a banana delight the likes of which your world has never known.
50g soft, white flour
50g icing sugar
50g egg white
2 ripe bananas, peeled and frozen overnight
1 Heat the butter in a saucepan until brown with a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
2 Combine the butter and the flour into a paste, then mix in the icing sugar and egg whites to form a smooth batter. Store in the refrigerator for several hours, or overnight.
3 Thaw one of the bananas, then pass through a sieve. Stir this purée into the batter.
4 Preheat the oven to 120C/250F/Gas Mark ½. Using a spatula, spread the batter in little biscuit shapes onto a nonstick baking sheet (use a round lid to cut around, if you wish). Place in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes. They should take on a light, baked colour, but shouldn’t be dark brown at the edges.
5 Just before removing the tuiles from the oven, grate some frozen banana over them to provide some fresh banana flavour.
6 Working quickly, use the spatula to peel the tuiles off the baking sheet while they’re warm enough to be flexible. Place on a flat surface to cool and harden.
Extracted and adapted from In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal (Bloomsbury £20).