2 average to large bananas, very, very ripe (brown spots on skin)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
Blender or food processor
A heat-proof silicone spatula helps but isn't necessary
Pastry brush, also useful but not necessary
In a blender or food processor, puree the bananas fully, until they pour like pancake batter.
Combine sugar and water in a very clean, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over high flame, and turn it down to a vigorous simmer. Try to avoid big bubbles splashing up too much onto the sides of the pot; those splashes can dry out, leaving the sugar to crystallize up there, and may cause your caramel to crystallize. (A very clean pot minimizes crystallization.) If you're paranoid, keep a pastry brush soaking in water and brush the sides of the pot occasionally to wash the sugar back down. As the water boils off and you're left with pure molten sugar, the bubbles will get bigger but slower and less violent. Nothing will look like it's happening for a while, but keep an eye on it.
When you start seeing some color develop at the bottom, gently swirl the pan to distribute it; this helps the sugar caramelize evenly. Caramel is a game of chicken: Pull the sugar off when it's too lightly colored, and the flavor is one-dimensional. Pull it off when it's too dark and it's burnt, bitter and acrid. But once the color starts to turn, it turns pretty quickly, so you have to be brave but not stupid; only repetition and a good memory for color will tell you when you've got the perfect color. But if you're new to this, play it a little safe and cook and swirl until the sugar is amber-colored and remove it from the heat, still swirling gently.
A tip, from Emily Smith, of Chicago's triple-cute Sweet Cakes Bakery: "To check the color, pull it from the heat and take it into a spot with some good light; this does two things: 1) cools it so you can see through to the bottom (stupid sugar bubbles!) and 2) that color is hard to see when the light over your stove is dim." (She also adds, "We're sorry that our website makes it look like we sell wholesale shoes. We're working on it!")
If you were making a regular caramel sauce, this is where you would splash in cream, cooling the sugar and freezing the caramelization process. Or, if you wanted to do a liquor-flavored caramel, this is when you would hit it with booze, like whiskey or cider. In this version, we're using the banana puree directly. Pour it in and stir vigorously with a spoon or heat-proof spatula, making sure to dig in the corners of the pan. It'll hiss and sizzle and maybe even boil. Just stick with it and it'll calm down. When it's cooled, give it a taste. Delicious! You will have extra; keep it in the fridge.
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream, plus 1/2 to 1 cup more for whipping
3 tablespoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in pieces
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 banana caramel (or to taste)
1-2 large, firm bananas (ripe, but still pale yellow)
Ginger snaps (or Nilla wafers, or cookie or cake of your choice)
Reserve a couple tablespoons of milk. Combine the rest with the cream in a pan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
While the dairy is heating, mix the reserved cold milk with the cornstarch in a heavy saucepan (at least 1.5 quart size) off heat. Make sure the starch dissolves; if you have floating bits of starch, smear them against the bottom of the pan with a rubber spatula or work them out with your fingers.
Now whisk in the eggs and add the sugar and salt. Take a look at your milk. Is it boiling? Don't let it boil over! (If it's boiling, just take it off the heat while you're getting the egg-starch-sugar mix ready.)
In a slow, thin stream, pour the hot milk into the egg mixture while whisking. If you haven't done this before, it's called tempering, and the idea is to disperse the hot milk throughout the eggs, so one patch of them doesn't take all the heat at once and scramble. Once you've tempered in about half the milk, go ahead and just pour and whisk in the rest.
Set the pan over medium heat, and stir constantly and briskly, adding the butter piece by piece. If you have a heat-proof rubber spatula, I like to sweep the bottom of the pan in S-shaped strokes, making sure I cover the whole bottom so nothing sticks. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens. At some point it will look like melted ice cream. Then it will coat your spoon or spatula. And then it will look like â€¦ pudding! (Don't freak out if some of it lumps up -- just whisk it out.) Once it looks puddinglike, turn the heat down to low and just let it cook for a minute.
Empty the pudding into a bowl. If you want to make sure it's smooth, dump it in a fine-mesh strainer, and use your spatula to push it through. As Dana says, "I'm a baker, not a pastry chef. Sometimes my pudding gets lumpy. I just run it through a sieve."
Gently stir in the banana caramel (yes!) and the vanilla. (If you stir too much at this point, it will break down and get runny. Cornstarch is weird like that.) Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the pudding surface to prevent a skin from forming, and let it cool completely before putting it in the fridge.
To assemble and serve: This is your call. Some people like to do this, adorably, in individual jars, and others (read: my beloved cafeteria) will just pile it into a big unbreakable bowl. Either way, here's the gist: Line the bottom and sides of whatever you're serving in with crumbled cookies or cake. Cover halfway with a layer of pudding. Then add sliced bananas (you want them fairly firm so they don't get mushy). Add a layer of cookies, another layer of bananas and another layer of pudding. Press plastic over the surface and refrigerate at least 4 hours. Before serving, cover with fresh whipped cream, and drizzle on some leftover banana caramel.
Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.