A couple of years ago I was in a London gelato shop surveying the daily flavors — fresh fig, melon, coffee, lemon, pistachio and banoffee? "What is banoffee?" I asked.
The shop owner blinked and smiled wryly. "What's this? You don't have banoffee pie in America?"
Banoffee pie, I soon learned, was not some Lewis Carroll invention — not the preferred food of the frumious bandersnatch — but rather one of the most popular desserts in the United Kingdom.
As you may have guessed, it combines bananas and toffee, though the latter is not the brittle candy we think of in America but more of a thick milk caramel. These two ingredients pile into a crust under a downy blanket of whipped cream. Sometimes chocolate shavings decorate the top.
"It's the ultimate in pub desserts," said Jenny Greenhalgh, a London chef who assists Jamie Oliver with his cooking school. "It was invented in a pub in the 1970s, but it has since become ubiquitous. When you go to our equivalent of a potluck, like a Christmas buffet, someone always makes a banoffee pie. My mother is obsessed with them."
During my stay in the U.K., I made sure to try a slice or two of banoffee pie in the name of life research. The toffee layer tasted distinctly of sweetened condensed milk, much like the dulce de leche of South America. I liked it rather than loved it in the same way I like don't love banana pudding. (Please don't ship me back North.) But I got it: Banoffee, for lack of a better description, is a thing — a combination of flavors that sound a singular chord like none other. If you grow up with it, you find comfort in it.
As I looked around London, I began to notice many instances of banoffee having jumped from the specificity of pie to the realm of pure flavoring. There were banoffee candies and banoffee espresso drinks. Cups of mass-produced banoffee yogurt at the supermarket and that artisanal banoffee gelato in a gourmet shop.
Now it seems to have jumped again, this time across the ocean. English chef April Bloomfield has made banoffee pie a signature must-have at her New York gastropub, the Spotted Pig. Among the mini-pies for sale at Bantam & Biddy in Atlanta's Ansley Mall is a pitch-perfect banoffee. So what are the building blocks of banoffee pie? It starts with the crust, which can be either a typical butter pastry or a cookie crumb crust. The latter should be made with crushed digestive biscuits — lightly sweetened, lightly salted, partly whole-wheat cookies that turn to mush after a dunk in tea. But the key ingredient in banoffee pie, of course, is that milk toffee. The crust is a matter of taste, but the toffee is invariable.
"I can't think of banoffee pie without the boiling of those tins," said Greenhalgh.
Greenhalgh explained that you boil cans of sweetened condensed milk, making sure they stay completely submerged in water, for at least two hours. After the cans cool, you open them and the milk has turned into a thick, fudgy caramel. This is precisely what Latin Americans do. Banoffee pie toffee and dulce de leche are the same.
Now comes the part of this pie story I must handle with caution. While the boiling of cans in water — essentially turning them into mini pressure cookers — isn't hard, it is potentially dangerous. If the can does not stay submerged, it could explode.
Greenhalgh says that a colleague's teenage son set a can to boil on the stove, went upstairs and forgot about it. What happened? "Well, they needed a new kitchen, that's what happened." So I perhaps shouldn't tell you whether I boiled two 14-ounce cans of Carnation sweetened condensed milk (ones without pop-top seals) for 2 1/2 hours and let them cool on the windowsill for 30 minutes.
I will tell you that I tested a recipe for banoffee pie that uses a toffee made from sweetened condensed milk, butter and dark brown sugar cooked for several minutes and that I found the dense texture and buttery flavor delicious but slightly off.
I will also tell you the no-bake cookie crumb crust I made with McVitie's Digestive Biscuits (available at my corner Kroger) and melted butter was like the best graham cracker crust in the world.
And I will tell you some good news in case you want to make banoffee pie for yourself. In the U.K., Nestle sells canned Carnation caramel ready to scoop into that no-bake crust. It also is produced in Mexico and sold as Nestle La Lechera Dulce de Leche, which you can find in any supermarket with a decent Latin foods selection. (To see this recipe go to my Food & More blog on ajc.com).
All this means that I can produce banoffee pie from my local supermarket without fear of blowing up my kitchen. Y'all know what I'm bringing to the next Christmas buffet.
Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes. Hands on: 15 minutes. Serves: 8-12
18 McVitie's Digestive Biscuits (about 2/3 of a 14-ounce package)
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
2 14-ounce cans dulce de leche
3-4 perfectly ripe bananas
8 ounces whipping cream
Chocolate shavings (optional)
Crumble the biscuits into a food processor and pulse into fine crumbs. Combine with melted butter in a bowl. Press this mixture with a spoon on the bottom and sides of a 9- or 10-inch tart mold with a removable bottom. Cover and chill for 45 minutes, until firm.
Spread the dulce de leche along the bottom of the tart. Slice bananas and spread in a single layer over the dulce de leche. Whip cream (I prefer it unsweetened, but you may want to add a spoonful of sugar) until it peaks. Spread the cream over the bananas, making sure to cover them fully to prevent them from browning. Decorate with grated chocolate. Chill at least 1 hour before serving. (You can also make the pie the day before.) When you remove the side, the edges may be a little crumbly, but that is the charm of banoffee pie. Serve icebox cold.