Why It Works
- Covering sliced bananas with layers of pastry cream helps prevent the fruit from browning.
- Refrigerating the assembled pie until it’s thoroughly chilled infuses the pastry cream with banana flavor and ensures clean slices.
I’ve made and consumed lots of pies, from lattice-topped fruit pies to baked custard pies and fruit tarts, but I have to admit I hadn't made all that many banana cream pies until I decided to develop this recipe. Now, after eating many, many slices of many different banana cream pies, I can safely conclude that life is far better with banana cream pie.
Recipes for banana cream pie first appeared in the late 19th century. One of the earliest iterations, which was published in 1901 in the Woman’s Exchange Cook Book, asks the cook to fill a baked pie crust with sliced bananas and powdered sugar then transfer the pie to the oven to soften the fruit. Five years later, a recipe in The Blue Ribbon Cook Book calls for a combination of sliced bananas and vanilla custard. That version, which remains popular to this day, is what I’ve stuck to for my recipe: a buttery pie crust filled with alternating layers of thinly-sliced ripe bananas and a rich vanilla pastry cream, and topped with sweetened whipped cream.
For the pie crust, I stuck with Stella’s extra-flaky rendition, which stays tender and crisp thanks to a 1:1 ratio of flour to butter. I also made a version with a graham cracker crust, but found that I much preferred Stella’s crust; its buttery flavor is a better match for the filling of bananas and custard.
With the custard, I tried versions of the pie with both pastry cream and banana pudding. My testing showed a clear preference among tasters for the vanilla-bean infused pastry cream and its light yet rich flavor. While the creamy banana pudding was a treat on its own, its cooked banana flavor overshadowed the fresh bananas in the pie.
For the bananas, I call for layering thinly sliced rounds both on the bottom of the crust and in-between layers of pastry cream. It’s important to slice your bananas only when you’re ready to assemble the pie to prevent enzymatic browning, a series of chemical reactions that occurs in some foods when their cut surfaces are exposed to air. In addition, I discovered that tightly sandwiching them between layers of pastry cream kept any browning at bay, likely due to a lack of oxygen. However, once you cut into the pie, the bananas that are exposed to air will begin to brown. While this will affect their flavor and texture slightly, the effect is minimal, since only a portion of the banana slice is exposed.
Making banana cream pie—any pie, really—takes time. I like to spread the prep out over the course of several days. I will cook the pastry cream and store it in the refrigerator, make and blind bake the pie crust and hold it at room temperature, then assemble and chill the pie. Once it’s ready to serve, I pile on butterscotch-y brown sugar whipped cream (which can also be made ahead of time). If you want, you can garnish the top with toasted coconut, chocolate shavings, or a drizzle of caramel, any of which would be welcome additions.
Starting in the center of the blind-baked crust, set down a single banana slice, then arrange concentric circles of banana slices around it in a single, even layer until you fully cover the bottom of the crust.
Using a small offset spatula, spread half of the pastry cream in an even layer on top of banana slices (banana slices should be fully covered). Repeat layering process with remaining bananas and cream. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until filling is cold and set, at least 3 hours and up to 1 day.
When ready to serve, top pie with whipped cream. Slice into wedges with a chef’s knife, carefully slide a pie server under the crust, making sure it reaches all the way to the tip of each wedge, and serve.
Small offset spatula.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Covered tightly with plastic wrap, banana cream pie can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.