We go through a lot of bananas around here. Especially in the winter months when more tender fruit and vegetables aren’t available. Along with kale, cabbage and root vegetables, it’s one of the hard-working staples we rely on year-round. However, unlike kale and its stalwart kitchen companions, which we transform each week into soups, salads, braises and roasts, we never do anything exciting with bananas. And considering the enormous mountain of them that appears on our kitchen table each week, the peel-and-eat situation was getting a bit monotonous.
Everything about this winter was starting to feel monotonous, in fact. Seattle, lush and verdant in the summer months, is all grey and drizzle for much of the fall and winter. Some people are immune to this seemingly endless series of overcast days. I am not one of them. And winter was starting to wear on me.
Thumbing my way through Instagram with its scenes of New York and Detroit and even Raleigh and Chatanooga under a snowy winter blanket, filled me with nostalgia for snow days and hot cocoa and snowball fights. (I suspect those of you digging out from under huge drifts and mending frozen pipes might have less romantic notions of this year’s winter storms.)
Thus afflicted by the winter doldrums and feeling more than a little bit sorry for myself, I was casting around the kitchen for culinary inspiration when my eyes fell on that pile of steadily ripening bananas. A recipe for a banana tarte tatin I’d seen ages ago flickered in the distant recesses of my mind. And just like that, that heap of boring bananas was full of delicious, caramelized potential.
If you haven’t had a tarte tatin, it’s a beauty of a dessert: tender caramelized apples above layers of flaky, buttery puff pastry. Elegantly French, yet homey and familiar. No one in their right mind can object to a good tarte tatin. Substituting bananas for the apples would lend some of the irresistible charm of Bananas Foster and provide the humble banana an edge of sophistication.
After tinkering with the recipe, I invited some friends over for dinner to act as my unwitting guinea pigs. Halfway through dessert, it struck me what folly it was to invite an incredibly talented pastry chef over to sample an untested dessert! Realizing this too late to course-correct, I fretted internally and carried on.
We tasted the tart with all sorts of toppings and decided in the end that less is more. It certainly wouldn’t be bad with, say, coffee-infused whip cream or cacao nibs or candied hazelnuts. But in order to let the nuances of the caramel and the floral notes of the bananas shine through, it was best with just a straightforward scoop of ice cream (I like vanilla or coffee), or simpler still, a dollop of tart crème fraîche. Whether you choose a minimalist approach or something more baroque, this banana tarte tatin is certainly a winner in the winter dessert department.
While eating a leftover slice of tart for breakfast (don’t judge), I started thinking about the transformation of a lackluster winter staple into a delicious dessert. How if you can coax yourself into seeing things from a slightly different point of view, fresh possibilities open up. On a walk later that day, it occurred to me that this lesson applied outside the kitchen as well. That caramelly tart reminded that there is inspiration in the everyday if you take the time to look for it.
As I walked, I decided to stop mentally complaining about the monotonous Seattle winter and focus instead on the little signs of spring that are starting to emerge. Tiny, tender buds on branch tips. Crocus and daffodils gently unfurling. The first flushed breast of a robin. How the air smells a bit different: loamy and rich with the faint perfume of cherry blossoms here and there. How the afternoon sunlight, growing by a few minutes each day, seems more golden and bright.
Grey days can still cast a pall over my mood if I’m not mindful. I wish I could say I now bound out of bed each morning singing show tunes! Alas, I do not. But I have decided to focus on the many good things each day holds, especially until spring is fully settled in and the sun returns. More walks. More laughs. More time in the garden. More cooking for no other reason than because it makes me happy.
It turns out bananas and winter days, when seen with a fresh eye, are full of delicious potential.
Banana Tarte Tatin
3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons dark rum
5 bananas, halved lengthwise (ripe, but still firm)
1 sheet puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed if frozen
Ice cream or crème fraîche, to serve
Flaky sea salt, to serve (I like Maldon)
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
In a medium saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sugar and salt. Cook, whisking occasionally until the sugar has melted and turned medium-amber, about 6-7 minutes. Cook the caramel a shade or two less that your desired final result as it will continue to caramelize in the oven. Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the cream, then the lemon juice and rum. Use caution as the caramel is extremely hot and will bubble up when you add the liquid ingredients. Don’t worry if it seizes a bit, just keep whisking until it’s smooth again. Very carefully transfer the hot caramel to your baking dish. Working quickly, spread the caramel with a spoon or flexible spatula to the corners of the dish before it hardens.
Roll out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 3/16-inch. Using a sharp knife, trace a rectangle ½-inch larger than the bottom of your baking dish. Arrange the bananas, cut-side-down over the caramel, trimming them as necessary to make them fit. Carefully lay the the trimmed puff pastry over the bananas, tucking the excess dough between the bananas and the side of the dish. Bake until the puff pastry has risen and is golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Remove the tarte tatin from the oven and let it rest for a couple of minutes. Run a butter knife around the sides of the baking dish to loosen any puff pastry or caramel that may have stuck. If there is caramel pooling in the bottom of the dish, carefully pour it off. But do not throw it away--it is DELICIOUS. Place a large platter or rimmed sheet pan over the baking dish. Grasp the baking dish and platter or sheet pan firmly with oven mitts or kitchen towels and invert them quickly. (They key is to flip quickly without hesitating.) Remove the baking dish.
Serve the tarte tatin warm or at room temperature, with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of crème fraîche and lightly sprinkled with sea salt. If you poured off any caramel from the bottom of the dish, that’s delicious spooned over the top or reserved for a killer ice cream sundae.
Makes 6 servings