It seems that I've opened a Pandora's box. It used to be that my baking repertoire was limited to cookies and the occasional cake or batch of muffins, and life was relatively simple. Ever since I made that salted caramel apple pie for the 4th of July, though, not only have my eyes been opened to new possibilities, but I've started receiving requests for more pies, and even cobblers. While I wasn't quite ready to try my hand at another fruit pie so soon, my attention was grabbed by a cream pie I was actually linked to when I was researching recipes on the Cooking Channel website for my last pie project.

The recipe that caught my eye was for another pie featuring salted caramel (one of my favorite dessert components), this time paired with bananas and vanilla pastry cream. I immediately earmarked it on my new cooking to-do list, which I've relocated from an email draft in my Gmail inbox to a board on Pinterest, a site where users can pin inspirational photographs to digital bulletin boards. I find that it's a more effective tool for managing my recipe queue, because it's easy to forget things when the list comes in the form of a long series of links. It's easier to be inspired when you can actually see pictures of the dishes you might potentially make. I'm on Pinterest here, and if you're interested in joining, let me know and I can send you an invite. Follow me, and I'll follow you back.

The salted caramel banana cream pie did not linger long on my inspiration board though, as the perfect opportunity to make it quickly presented itself: tonight Justin and I hosted our friends Natasha and Travis for a low-key dinner party. Pie is Natasha's favorite dessert, and in a stroke of serendipity, when I served my pie as a surprise at the end of the meal, I discovered that both she and Travis apparently love banana desserts. (Also on the menu was the Boursin mac and cheese I made back in March, because I remembered that Natasha had commented on my blog that it looked delicious, my go-to salad with homemade dressing, and fried chicken from KFC, because, hey, I'm not Superwoman.)

Thankfully, this pie seemed to come together more quickly than my last effort, even though the humidity thwarted my first attempt at the requisite salted caramel sauce. The moisture in the air caused the sugar to clump together as it was melting, and I managed to burn it before I could coax the lumps into melting smoothly. At least sugar is cheap, and I had another suitable pan available to mount a more successful second try.

As with my last pie, I eschewed the recipe's crust instructions in favor of those from Alton Brown, since my last pie crust was widely praised and I accurately predicted that he wouldn't lead me astray a second time. I did find that the crust was slightly tougher when made with water, so in the future I might try a 50/50 vodka to water mix when making the pie, just to see if it cuts down on some of the gluten formation. Problematically, I only had a few dry beans on hand to weigh down my crust when I was blind-baking it, so it did bubble up and warp somewhat, but I was able to tamp it down with a glass after baking, which resolved some, but not all of the problem. At least it wasn't noticeable once the pie was filled.

The pastry cream was also simple enough, and I think it was much tastier than the Jello vanilla or banana pudding that most people use to fill their banana cream pies, especially because I added some vanilla bean paste that I had in the pantry instead of the vanilla extract called for in the original recipe. In fact, my general dislike of banana cream pies (I made this recipe because I wanted to see if I could make myself enjoy one by adding salted caramel to the mix) probably stems from my dislike of all boxed puddings that aren't chocolate. Still, even though this pie didn't take up quite as many hours of my life as the salted caramel apple pie, it was still labor-intensive, and I can understand why some people would go the time-saving route.

My only problem with Kelsey's recipe was that it didn't call for nearly enough bananas. She suggested that you buy three, but I went with four just because the bananas at my local store seem to run small and I've never had enough for any recipe I've ever made that called for them. Still, I ran out of bananas when I was assembling the layers of the pie, and could have easily used another, if not two.

When all was said and done, the pie turned out splendidly. It was by far the best banana cream pie I've ever had (and I'm convinced now that salted caramel has magical powers that make everything taste better), and my guests seemed suitably impressed and touched that I'd gone through the effort to make it for them. Being the apple pie fan that I am, I still liked my first pie the best, but other people who had the privilege of sampling both came down in favor of this salted caramel banana cream pie. To each his own, I say.

Banana Caramel Cream Pie
adapted from Kelsey's Essentials

Pie Crust (adapted from Alton Brown)
6 tablespoons very cold butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
3 tablespoons very cold lard, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
6 oz. all-purpose flour, chilled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 c. ice water

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt. Add the butter and pulse 5-6 times until it appears mealy. Add the lard and pulse another 3-4 times. Remove the lid and sprinkle with a few tablespoons of water. Replace lid and pulse another 5 times. Add more water and pulse a few more times until mixture holds together when squeezed. Turn out onto a piece of plastic wrap and knead a couple times until dough holds its shape. Form into a disc, wrap tightly, and chill at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425.

On a generously floured work surface, roll out the dough to a 10-11 inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pie plate, and decoratively crimp the edges. Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Refrigerate 15 minutes.

Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the dough, and fill with dried beans. Bake 10 minutes. Remove the parchment and beans and bake 10-15 minutes more, until golden in color. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before filling.

Pie Filling
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon flour
2 1/2 c. whole milk
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1 recipe salted caramel sauce
5-6 bananas, sliced

In a medium sauce pan, combine the sugar, salt, corn starch, and flour. Over medium-low heat, gradually add the milk, then raise the temperature to medium high. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks. When the pastry cream comes to a boil, quickly whisk a 1/2 cup of the mixture into the egg yolks to temper them. Then add the eggs back to the sauce pan, whisking vigorously to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Continue whisking until the mixture coats the back of a spoon and is smooth and thick. Strain into a bowl, and whisk in the tablespoon of butter and vanilla. Stir in 1 cup of sliced bananas. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on the surface to prevent a skin from forming, and allow to cool before using.

When ready to assemble, place a layer of sliced bananas on the bottom of the pie crust. Drizzle 1/4 cup of salted caramel sauce over the bananas. Pour 1 cup of vanilla pastry cream over the bananas and caramel, smoothing to cover. Repeat layering with remaining bananas, caramel and pastry cream, making sure the last layer is one of pastry cream. Place in the refrigerator and chill until filling is set, at least two hours.

Top with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

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