More Than Just Recipes: Bananas Foster

Set adrift on butter, brown sugar, and rum bliss.

Although Bananas Foster is widely known as a New Orleans recipe, I never had any experience with this particular dish while I was cooking in the Crescent City. I dealt with plenty of bread pudding recipes, and I had an occasional hand in the hyper-decadent sweet potato-and-pecan pies at K-Paul’s, but Bananas Foster was never part of my repertoire. However, when I was attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park NY, I did have the opportunity to whip up several batches of Bananas Foster while I was finishing the culinary program. My very last course at the CIA was actually a three-week stint waiting tables at the Escoffier Room, which was the classicly-themed French restaurant on campus (known simply as the “E-Room” among the student population). Frankly, I hated every single day of E-Room service — not being in the kitchen — but stumbling around the dining room, fumbling with the silverware, and saying insipid things in front of the guests.

As it was, I still feel very fortunate to have ended my time at the CIA in the dead of a cold, snowy winter, which meant that the E-Room was relatively quiet, since navigating Route 9 could be awfully treacherous that time of year. But even with scant reservations on the books, I struggled with many aspects of restaurant service. The worst thing, by far, was balancing drinks on trays (top-heavy martini glasses being my greatest nemesis). Despite all of my fears, I never actually dumped a drink on a guest, but I do remember trembling like an idiot whenever I tried to place a brimming martini glass on the table, usually spilling it uncontrollably in the process. Looking back, I’m not sure why this was such an issue for me, but waiting tables had definitely gotten inside my head. I still recall my buddy DK — with whom I was partnered as a back-waiter — just shaking his head at all of my pitiful displays. His disgust was as real as real can get, and I deserved it, every last bit. It’s absolutely hilarious to me now.

One aspect of service that I actually felt a lot more comfortable with was making Bananas Foster as a table-side dessert. Although table-side service did make me the momentary center of attention, to me, it was just cooking, and pretty easy cooking at that (plus, at the end of meal, it was also my last chance for redemption). The reason for preparing Bananas Foster table-side, of course, is the showmanship of the flambé. It could sometimes become pretty interesting in the E-Room, as different classmates vied to produce the biggest ball of fire. If I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure that our instructor encouraged this behavior, pointing out that because lunch service offered too much daylight, we should hit the pan with a little extra rum in order produce a more noticeable flame. As the weeks went by, and as graduation neared, we pushed the envelope more and more, and despite the din of service, you could often hear a low and satisfying whoooooooom! as the flames jumped from the pan.

• • •

There is no mystery as to the origin of Bananas Foster, which means that finding the definitive recipe is rather simple. The dessert began in New Orleans in 1951, and it was created by the executive chef at Brennan’s, Paul Blangé. Bananas Foster took its name from Richard Foster, the chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission and a personal friend of restaurateur Owen Brennan. I did, however, find a small discrepancy between the recipe offered on the Brennan’s official website and the one offered in my 1968 edition of the Brennan’s cookbook. Below are the ingredients for both versions, with the book version being expanded to include four servings (as a nod to its table-side origins, the book actually outlines Bananas Foster as a single-serve recipe). When converted to the same scale, however, the original recipe features only half as much brown sugar as the modern version, but it also features an extra quarter-cup of booze. Somewhere along the way, the recipe also switched from white rum to dark rum, which I thought was interesting.

BANANAS FOSTER, Brennan’s Online

  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 4 bananas, cut in half lengthwise, then halved
  • 1/4 cup banana liqueur
  • 1/4 cup dark rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 scoops vanilla ice cream

versus…

BANANAS FOSTER, Brennan’s Cookbook

  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 4 bananas, cut in half lengthwise
  • 1/4 cup banana liqueur
  • 1/2 cup white rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 scoops vanilla ice cream

• • •

Within certain boundaries, the recipe for Bananas Foster has a large degree of flexibility. For one, I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy banana liqueur, and I would probably use whatever style rum was on hand. For the version pictured above, which I scaled down to a single serving, I created the sauce from three tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of brown sugar, two tablespoons of dark rum, and 1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Once you prepare this dessert, measuring eventually becomes less and less significant. It is, after all, a very basic combination of common ingredients. In my mind’s eye, I think of Bananas Foster simply as a good chunk of butter, an equal portion of brown sugar, a generous dash of ground cinnamon, and enough rum to turn it all into a sauce (and enough to throw a mighty flame, as well). Add one sliced banana and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Done.

Although the ingredient list for Bananas Foster remains quite simple, the execution of the dish is worth explaining, especially in regard to its timing. Typically, I begin with a cold pan and heat the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon together, allowing them to combine without burning the butter. During this initial step, it’s important to point out that the sugar itself may not readily dissolve, since sugar and butterfat are not soluble. Not to worry, however; sugar is soluble in rum. When the booze hits the pan, give it a second to vaporize, then flambé it before the moment is lost. Once the flames begin to subside, stir the mixture until the sugar loses its granular texture (if you use a wooden spoon, you can usually “feel” the sugar crystals against the bottom of the pan). Contrary to the classic approach, I typically prefer to add the sliced bananas at the very end; they’re delicate, and there’s no need to beat them up unnecessarily. Of course, the vanilla ice cream (preferably homemade) should be plated only moments before serving.

3 comments to More Than Just Recipes: Bananas Foster

  • I love the stories about your CIA days. Keep ’em coming.
    And thanks for the delicious recipe!

  • ThirstyReader

    I should’ve kept a blog when I was in chef school… Haha.

  • godfather

    Are you crazy or what?? The RUM is one of the key parts of this dish. Why do you think they changed from a light rum to dark– FOR THE FLAVOR!!!!! To just use some generic rum that you would use to make a flame is insane!! Rum is made all over the world and its flavors differ greatly. Otherwise the article is great. You could not have kept a blog at the CIA as you were to busy doing my homework.

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