When a bunch of bananas start to go south, it's hard to beat a freshly baked loaf of banana bread. But after a certain number of loaves, it's normal for any baker to crave a change of pace.
For me, that's where banana pudding comes in. No, not that banana pudding, the one made with sliced bananas, vanilla pudding, and vanilla wafers. This one—a thick and creamy stovetop custard with the sort of deep and complex banana flavor that can only be extracted by a long, slow steep.
This type of banana pudding is comfort food at its best, simple and cozy and warm (especially when made with toasted sugar for some subtle caramel notes). But if that's not your speed, the pudding base is just as easily lightened with whipped cream to serve as a chilled crémeux instead (pastry-chef speak for anything lighter than pudding but not as airy as a mousse).
This format trades the instant gratification and best-eaten-alone-without-pants-on vibe for a slightly more sophisticated approach, one better suited for serving at the dinner table (or layered with sliced bananas and vanilla wafers if you want to return to that no-pants lifestyle).
Whichever incarnation you prefer, the custard starts with sliced bananas (and a leftover vanilla bean if you happen to have one) steeped with hot milk in a 3-quart stainless steel saucier.
Pulling out a strong banana flavor will take at least four hours, but deeper, more complex banana notes will emerge over time, so I often let the steeping process go as long as 24 hours (covered and refrigerated, of course).
What this method lacks in instant gratification, it more than makes up for with intensity, depth of flavor, and texture. Because the bananas give up all their flavor, the fruit pulp itself can be strained out, allowing for the most wonderfully silky-smooth custard without any sacrifice of flavor at all (this is how I make banana ice cream, too).
Whether steeped for four or 24 hours, return the banana milk to a simmer, and then strain through a fine-mesh, non-reactive sieve. Press gently on the banana pulp to extract all the milk, but don't push so hard that the solids pass through, as this will only make the custard lumpy and thin.
If using a vanilla bean, be sure to scrape out the flavorful, vanilla-flecked milk trapped in each half of the pod before discarding.
With the banana milk out of the way, the custard base can be prepared in the same saucier as before (no need to wash). Just whisk the sugar, cornstarch, salt, cloves, and egg yolks before adding the warm milk.
Cloves may seem like a random addition to the custard, but they're high in an essential oil called eugenol, which is naturally abundant in bananas. When used modestly, cloves can make banana desserts taste more banana-y without edging into a boldly spiced profile of their own.
In lieu of classic tempering, where boiling hot milk is whisked into the eggs and sugar, this custard is gently warmed over medium-low heat until steaming hot, at which point it can safely be cooked over medium heat without fear of scrambling the eggs.
Once it's bubbling hot, the custard is held at a boil for 90 seconds to neutralize a starch-dissolving enzyme found in egg yolks and then doctored with vanilla off-heat. If desired, the custard can be strained through a mesh sieve for an extrasmooth consistency.
For those craving a warm dessert, it's time to dish up and dig in!
For those patiently plotting a crémeux, the warm custard should be spread out in a large baking dish to cover and refrigerate until cold. From there, it can be stirred until soft and smooth and then folded with stiffly whipped cream to lighten things up.
Keep at it until the mixture is creamy and smooth; then transfer to a disposable pastry bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe into serving dishes to enjoy right away, or cover and chill until needed—they'll keep about 24 hours in the fridge.
I like to pair the sweet and mellow crémeux with something bold and crunchy for contrast, like cocoa nibs or toasted pecans, but it's fantastic as filling for cream puffs, doughnuts, banana pudding, or even stuffed French toast.
So the next time you've got a bunch of speckled bananas, rest assured there's more to life than banana bread, whether you're craving something hot or cold.