RECIPE: BANANA PUDDING BITES

It really doesn't get much more Southern than Banana Pudding. You will rarely go to any event or party and not see Banana Pudding on the menu. While it is wildly popular, Banana Pudding just doesn’t look beautiful once you remove the first spoonful. I was asked to serve Banana Pudding for a charity event in Chicago but I wanted it to look elegant for this elegant occasion. I wasn't sure what to do but  I had some pate a choux (dough) left over from some cream puffs hanging out in the fridge and it hits me! Put the insides of the banana pudding into puff shell! This dough makes the best little puffs and they are hollow. Perfect for filling. The experiment was a total success. Best of all, these tasted just like the banana pudding my mother used to make! BLISS! 

One bite banana pudding is so pretty and easy to serve- it has been a huge hit with everyone who has tried them!

One bite banana pudding is so pretty and easy to serve- it has been a huge hit with everyone who has tried them!

ONE BITE BANANA PUDDING

I have 3 components to this recipe: the pate a choux, the pastry cream filling and the meringue top. I have it broken down into segments below. You don’t even have to do it all at one time. I made the choux the day before serving. I made the pastry cream the following morning and I made the meringue just before I wanted to put them in the oven. The meringue will not hold so plan on using it as soon as you whip it up. Hope you love these!

*CHEF’S NOTE: For assembly, you will need 1-2 ripe bananas

CREAM PUFF DOUGH RECIPE (Pate a Choux)

Makes about 22-28 small puffs depending on how large you pipe them out

Prep: 10 minutes    Bake: 20 minutes 

Supplies: Cookie sheet, parchment paper, piping bags or ziptop bags (don’t use a cheap one- it will break)

This is a classic Pate a Choux dough. I always mix mine by hand because I don’t want to wash the extra bowl of the mixer but some believe (Alton Brown and Jacques Pepin for example) that you have to use a mixer to incorporate the eggs. I did a blind taste test and I cannot tell the difference in taste nor in texture or appearance.

1 cup water

1 stick unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 cup all purpose flour

4 eggs 

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Get out a large measuring cup or short glass (I find a pint mason jar works great) and put the zip top bag into it, open the top of the bag. This will give you some stability as you spoon the dough into the bag.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Put the water, butter, salt and sugar in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil until the butter is just melted. Reduce the heat to very low. Add the flour all at one time, mixing with a wooden spoon. Cook over low heat until you start to see a little “film” on the bottom of the pan- only about 1 minute or even less. The dough will come together in a ball. Remove from the heat and allow to cool just a little bit but not too much; the dough has to be warm to accept the eggs. If the dough is too hot, you cook the eggs. This is not good.

If you are using a mixer, this is the time to transfer the dough to the bowl of your mixer. I use the same saucepan and put it on top of a dish towel to keep it from slipping around as I beat in the eggs. It is essential to add the eggs one at a time to your dough. I usually put all 4 eggs in a small bowl and just slip them in, one at a time, beating each with a wooden spoon until it is incorporated then I add the next egg and repeat. At first, it will seem as if you’ve made a mistake but do not stop. In a few seconds, the dough will go from slippery to a bit sticky as the egg is accepted into the dough. Do this 4 times. Take care not to be too aggressive with the wooden spoon because I have actually tossed an egg out onto the floor… that is how slippery the dough is in the beginning.

Once you have the eggs fully incorporated, spoon the dough into the pastry bag or zip top bag you have set up. You can use it right away or it will hold beautifully in the fridge until you are ready to use it. I have waited a day or more, in fact, but let the dough sit out at least 20 minutes before you try to pipe it onto the baking sheet or you may blow out the side of the zip top bag. Again, not good.

Pipe the dough into heart shaped or little puffs (see photo at the top) For the heart, draw the outside and then fill in the middle. For the puffs, I find that swirls don’t cook as pretty as simply applying pressure to the bag until the puff is the size I want, then pull the bag back. It forms a little tip when you do this so before you put the into the oven, wet your finger with water and push down any little peaks so they don’t burn.

Bake the puffs for 10-12 minutes at 425 degrees. Open the door and quickly rotate the pan and reduce the heat to 350 degrees for 10-12 more minutes. It is important not to simply switch the pan to an oven set to 350. The puffs will deflate.

I’ve had to trial and error this timing with my oven… and to my taste. I don’t want dried out puffs but I also don’t want them too wet or eggy. Grab one out, let it cool slightly and check the inside to see if it is what you want. If so, remove them from the oven. If not, give them a minute more.

Take a small paring knife or even a toothpick and puncture the top of the puff so the steam can escape. Allow them to cool on a rack before filling.

Put the water, butter, and salt in a pot, bring to boil. Add the flour all at once off the heat but put it back on the heat and cook for a minute or two until a slight film starts to form on the bottom of the pan. Remove from the heat. Add the eggs, stirring them in one at a time until each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Spoon into a ziptop bag; I like to put it over a large bowl or measuring cup to make it easier.

Put the water, butter, and salt in a pot, bring to boil. Add the flour all at once off the heat but put it back on the heat and cook for a minute or two until a slight film starts to form on the bottom of the pan. Remove from the heat. Add the eggs, stirring them in one at a time until each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Spoon into a ziptop bag; I like to put it over a large bowl or measuring cup to make it easier.

Spoon the Pate a Choux into a piping bag or ziptop bag. Snip the end. Pipe onto baking sheet lined with parchment. Use some water on your finger to push down the peak before baking. Let them cool on a rack. Pierce the puff with a knife to allow the steam to escape.

Spoon the Pate a Choux into a piping bag or ziptop bag. Snip the end. Pipe onto baking sheet lined with parchment. Use some water on your finger to push down the peak before baking. Let them cool on a rack. Pierce the puff with a knife to allow the steam to escape.

PASTRY CREAM

For my banana pudding, I did not use a vanilla bean like I normally would because I didn’t want the bean flecks in the custard. 

Makes 2 1/2 cups

Prep: 5 minutes    Cook: 12 minutes      Chill: 10 minutes

Supplies: Large bowl filled 1/2 full with ice and water

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup milk plus 3 ounces more (a little more than 1)/2 cup)

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract plus a tiny drop each of almond and lemon extract

8 egg yolks in a medium heat-proof bowl

1/2 cup granulated sugar

6 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 stick unsalted butter 

Make an ice bath in a heat proof bowl by filling it 1/2 full with ice and water.

Put 1 cup of milk and the cream  in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer. (you will see the little bubbles foaming around the edges of the pot)

Remove from the heat.

Add the sugar to the yolks and whisk for 30 seconds to help dissolve the sugar.

Put the saucepan back onto medium heat and bring it back to a simmer. Once you reach the simmer, temper the eggs by briskly whisking a small amount of the hot mixture into the eggs; keep whisking constantly; adding a little more of the hot mixture into the eggs. Continue whisking it in until you have it all incorporated and then return to the saucepan. 

Next, use a fork to whisk/dissolve the cornstarch into the remaining 3 ounces of milk. I just use the measuring cup because it shows the ounces on the outside. It is just under 1/2 cup of milk.

Put the saucepan back over medium heat. Whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Continue whisking or stirring over medium heat. As you are stirring, suddenly, you will notice it beginning to thicken up. Don’t think you have ruined it or curdled it. Just keep stirring until it just comes to a boil and is thick. Remove from the heat. 

Put the saucepan into the ice bath you prepared earlier; take care not to allow any water to get into the pan and continue stirring to cool the custard a bit. Add the vanilla, almond and lemon extracts plus the butter and stir until it is completely melted and incorporated. Transfer to a bowl and cover the surface with plastic wrap or spoon into a piping bag. Refrigerate until ready to use.

ASSEMBLY

1. Slice the tips off of the puffs. Eat or save for later.

2. Pipe a dollop of pastry cream into the puff.

3. Slice a banana and add one slice on top of the pastry cream.

4. Pipe more pastry cream into each puff, filling it completely.

5. Make the meringue (see recipe below) and top each puff.

6. Bake until the meringue is golden brown.

7. Eat 3-4 as soon as they come out of the oven while warm.

MAKE THE MERINGUE TOPPING

I learned how to make meringue from my mom and I love the way hers was always so light and fluffy. However, my sweet and uber talented pastry chef friend, Geri-Martha taught me to first whisk the egg whites and the sugar together over a double boiler to dissolve the sugar so there is no grit remaining. For the photo above, I did not use the double boiler method, but for the party, I will. I like the texture better if you bother to do the double boiler step. Also, many people use cream of tartar or vinegar in their meringue. I don’t because I personally think it creates more “shrinkage” where the meringue pulls away from the crust.

FYI: The ratio for meringue is 4:1. An egg white is about 1 ounce. Therefore you would use about 1 cup of sugar for every 4 egg whites.

CLASSIC MERINGUE RECIPE

4 egg whites

1 cup granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 425. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the egg whites and the sugar in your mixing bowl (make sure it is heatproof or use a heatproof bowl) over a double boiler that is simmering. Do not let the water touch the bowl and make sure the heat is not a full boil but a simmer.

Rapidly whisk the whites and sugar together until there is no grit remaining. This happens faster than you might think.

Remove from heat. Dry off the bottom and sides of the bowl. Put it on your mixer  stand with the whisk attachment. (if you do not have one, you can just use your hand-held mixer) Start at low speed for 30 seconds then increase the speed to medium high and beat until shiny and stiff peaks form when you lift the whisk from the bowl.

Immediately spoon the whites into a piping bag or zip top bag. They will not hold long. Snip the tip of the bag and pipe onto your prepared shell taking care to ”seal” the edges with the meringue.

Bake at 425 for 4 minutes or until golden brown. 

TRAVEL: WHAT TO EAT AND WHERE TO STAY IN ALABAMA

I was so lucky to partner with the Alabama Department of Tourism to showcase dishes and destinations around the state of Alabama during Alabama Restaurant Week. I wanted to share what I learned: from Huntsville to the white sugar sands of the Alabama Gulf Coast, the food, the scenery, and the people make our state special. Plus we have magnificent hotels, resorts, golf courses, beaches, and attractions like Barber Sports Museum that make our state one-of-a kind.

Using social media to track my travels, I stopped into as many participating restaurants as I could during my two week road trip. Posting photos of the food and my travels from city to city; I met and spoke with the owners, chefs, cooks, bartenders and support staff behind Alabama’s vibrant and diverse food scene.

Listening to their stories, I heard a common thread: creating food is their life. It is their hobby turned into a business. Or the life’s work of a grandfather, a father and now, a son. It is their mother’s recipes or their sister’s passion. It is their all-consuming desire to create, craft, cook, bake, shake, stir, fry, and grill the very best food they can for their customers. They have smokers going ‘round the clock. They have bread rising, meat marinating, and their catch of the day coming into the docks. They stand for hours in front of raging hot ovens. Chef-owners like Jake Reed of Albany Bistro in Decatur are out picking beans at dusk for a special the next day. James Beard winner Chef Chris Hastings of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club is foraging in the woods for native mushrooms in the Alabama summer heat. Bakers arrive at 4:00 am to begin making the fresh cinnamon rolls and sticky buns at Fairhope’s Sweet Olive Bakery and Joann, the pie maker at Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur, will make hundreds of pies in a day… especially when Peanut Butter Pie is the special. James Beard award winning Chef Frank Stitt of Birmingham’s legendary Highland’s Bar and Grill has eggs from his own farm on the menu and he’s helped other farmers by designing menu items around fresh, local produce. It is no wonder that it has been nominated as a finalist for America’s best restaurant by the James Beard Foundation for the past five years running.

As I look over the numbers: 2,238 miles driven, 81 restaurants visited, 677 photos taken, and more than 254 dishes, drinks, and desserts sampled during my travels, I am certain that few of us understand the labor of love that shows up on our plates when we order at a restaurant. I am so privileged to have the opportunity to learn the extraordinary stories behind Alabama’s celebrated food… and I got to taste it all, too!

WHERE TO STAY: First on my list has to be The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. I've been going there since the early 90's when I first discovered it and it is absolutely one of my favorite places on the planet. I love the views from the Marina building- with bay vistas as far as the eye can see. I love watching the boats come and go. The hotel has a wonderful program for kids and families and you do not want to miss out on a day at the spa! They have one of the best in the region featuring an indoor pool, gym, and the tranquility room, perfect for relaxation. The outdoor pool is spectacular and offers a spot for everyone from families to those seeking solitude and a spot to read a good book. They have a chef's garden and the food is inspired by what's found locally. Shrimp, flounder and crab are mainstays and you'll find seasonal produce from the farms nearby including locally grown oysters. Sunday Brunch is a tradition you will not want to miss! Afterwards, take a walk down the boardwalk lined with beautiful bay homes and live oak trees. You can grab a rod and try your luck at fishing from the pier or rent a bike for an easy ride to downtown Fairhope. They have an incredible golf course and tennis facilities or rent a kayak or paddleboard and get out on the water. Each day, a drum corps announces the ceremonial firing of the cannon-- Yes, a real civil war cannon is fired each day because the hotel was once a hospital during the War Between the States. To me, this ritual always signals the arrival of afternoon tea or cocktails at Bucky's Birdcage. A crab boil on the beach or ghost stories around the campfire with S'mores might round out your day at the Grand Hotel. Whether you round up your girlfriends for a weekend away or take the family to our LA (lower Alabama) for some old-fashioned fun, you won't want to miss a stay at the Grand.  Visit their website for more info...

THESE ARE SOME OF MY FAVORITES FROM MY TOUR; SCROLL DOWN TO SEE THE PHOTOS!

  1.  Favorite Sandwich: The Bacon LT from Sandwich Farm in Huntsville. They cure their own bacon and slice it thick and serve it wedged between local tomatoes and pan-fried mozzarella.
  2. Favorite Stop: Belle Chevre Cheese Shop & Tasting Room, Elkmont, Alabama. My friend Tasia makes incredible goat cheese and I loved getting to see her new shop and watch her at work. We caught up over French press coffee and a piece of Apple Dapple cake with whipped Belle Chevre icing.
  3. Favorite Story: Chef Michelle, the owner/chef at Sugar B’s in Prattville pursued a lifelong dream and went to culinary school then opened a bakery and restaurant. Michelle arrives at work each day before sunrise to start baking and does it all with three children, two of them with special needs. She is an inspiration!
  4. Best Brunch: TIE: Albany Bistro, Decatur. Go for the Beignets or the Biscuits and Chocolate Gravy (a North Alabama tradition) and stay for the relaxing atmosphere and warm Southern hospitality you find in this friendly neighborhood spot. What’s not to love about a place with a dog named Biscuit as a mascot! Also, you will not want to miss the incredible brunch at The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. It is massive and features a number of chef stations including a carving station, omelet station, waffle station and more!
  5. Best Bite: Crispy Pork Belly with Pineapple Upside Down Cornbread from Chef Wesley True at True Montgomery; a perfect pairing.
  6. Biggest OMG Moment: Walking into the lobby of the stunning and remarkably restored Battle House Hotel in downtown Mobile, Alabama or perhaps opening the door to their rooftop pool with massive palm trees in the middle of expansive city views.
  7. Favorite Vibe: The Gulf at Perdido Pass, Orange Beach, Alabama. Take your living room and throw it out on the beach amid palm trees, umbrellas and a relaxed cocktail bar. Add some fresh daily menu specials and you might just hang out here all day.
  8. Best Ethnic: Phuket Thai Restaurant in Huntsville. They use old world techniques and authentic recipes; I had the Kao-Soi, a superb Northern Thai curry noodle dish that I would travel back for right now.
  9. Favorite Hotel Room: The Grand Hotel, Fairhope. The expansive view of Mobile Bay and the soothing sounds of the water on the beach at night are complimentary.
  10. Favorite Table: The tables by the Bocci Ball court in the garden at Chez Fon Fon in Birmingham have long been my favorite but I do love to sit at the chef’s counter at Hot and Hot Fish Club and take it all in. There’s a potential new favorite… the “engagement” table at Fisher’s Orange Beach Marina. This is the table where several couples have recently gotten engaged. It overlooks the marina, the boats and you’re at the perfect angle to watch the orange-pink sunset.
  11. Favorite Oysters: No surprise here. Wintzell’s Chargrilled Oysters were my favorite this year.
  12. Most Impressive: Watching Chef Tres Jackson, chef/owner of Epiphany carefully craft his cuisine with locally sourced ingredients and house made everything.
  13. Most Unexpected:  Below the Radar Brewhouse, Huntsville, Alabama. Not only do they craft their own beer, they craft an elegant menu to pair with it. The entire menu including the desserts, are made from scratch. My favorite was the Summer Peach & Pale Ale Sorbet and this Pan Seared Grouper over Herb Crusted, Red Potatoes and Grilled Asparagus.
  14. Favorite Gumbo: 219 in Mobile. Their Dirty Rice Gumbo was different, rich and savory. Fantastic.
  15. Best Fish: The Jerk Snapper at Fisher’s Orange Beach Marina.
  16. Favorite Chicken Salad: Tie. The legendary chicken salad at Claunch’s Café in Tuscumbia and the Napa Chicken Salad at Fig Tuscaloosa were my favorites of the 17 different chicken salads I sampled.
  17. Best Overall Meal: I’m such a fan of Chef John Hamme and Chef Brandon Burleson at Voyager’s Restaurant at the Perdido Beach Resort. They served me an incredible tasting menu and my favorite dessert of the trip, some delicious berry thing I ate before I took the photo.
  18. Favorite Find: Old 27 Grill in Fairhope. Well-crafted comfort food with local ingredients, a great vibe, outstanding bar, and live music all take me back to Judge Roy Bean’s for any of you who remember it… with better food and without the goat.
  19. Favorite Pie: Peanut Butter Pie from Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur. This pie has a great story. JoAnn, a girl I knew from high school days makes the pies at Big Bob Gibson’s and we had a reunion after 25 years while I was there on the tour! Incredible!
  20. Favorite Cocktail: The Intimidator. Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina made a smoked bourbon Manhattan that I simply adored. The elegant atmosphere, the house-made bitters and a huge ice sphere made it memorable.
  21. Favorite Veggie Plate: The fancy looking and down home tasting veggie plate at Little Savannah in Birmingham was my favorite this year.
  22. Heart on a Plate Award: The “Desde de Jardin” (Spanish for from the garden) specials from Chef Leonardo Maurelli at Central in Montgomery are truly his passion for farm fresh, local food on a plate.
  23. Prettiest Plate Award: Has to go to the Forager’s Walk from Chef Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club. Foraged greens, edible flowers, herbs, and mushrooms are plated on locally crafted Earthborn Pottery; it looks like art.
  24. Biggest Surprise: The Fried Banana Pudding at Baumhower’s. They take a tortilla, fill it with homemade custard and bananas and quick fry it to a golden brown and top it with a caramel drizzle. Who knew?
  25. Favorite BBQ Plate: New Market BBQ in New Market, Alabama loaded up my plate with brisket, ribs, smoked turkey, pork shoulder, fresh local corn on the cob and their smoked ‘Smac and Cheese’ plus an endless glass of really good sweet tea.
  26. Favorite Meat and Three: Birmingham’s Eagle’s Restaurant was recently featured on the Travel Channel and I know why. Homemade scratch cooking including cornbread and greens like my mom used to make.
  27. Favorite Tomatoes: I ate many different varieties of tomatoes (including many different fried green tomatoes) but this summer tomato salad from Chez Fon Fon in Birmingham was tops.
  28. Favorite Family Recipe Dish: The Fudge Pie from Nolan’s Restaurant and Lounge in Gulf Shores. Hands down my favorite chocolate thing I ate on my trip.
  29. My Favorite Photo: A peek at the chefs at work at Fisher’s Orange Beach Marina through portholes they rescued and installed so guests can see what is happening the kitchen.
  30. Favorite Ribs. Big Bob Gibson’s, Decatur. They win national BBQ contests and rightfully so.
  31. Most Shared Photo: Southern Pecan Bread Pudding from The Dish in Florence, Alabama was shared the most through social media.
  32. Most “Likes” Photo:  The view of the pool and bay at The Grand Hotel was the most liked on my Facebook page.

There’s a reason it is called Sweet Home Alabama. Come see for yourself!