I’m the result of too many Mai Tais and Nat King Cole. Or so I heard. My kooky, irreverent mother who danced the Times step on our linoleum floor and pounded out Chopin etudes more easily than round steak would casually tell her friends about the conditions surrounding my conception. And whenever she was dishing, I was listening. I heard her laughter, helped dice the Velveeta, polished the silver to luminosity and ultimately, found the strength to lift my own life by the melody of her madness – a passion as soothing and lively, as bright and original as Bach’s Banana Pudding. Named for the Johann Sebastian dude because when mom was practicing those Bach Fugues, I’d raid the frig, sneak into my room and crank up “Meet the Beatles.”
Stirring milk and eggs on the Tappan stove was somewhat out of character for such a chic, elegant gal, who wore a French twist, Ferragamos and a fashionable overbite. Making traditional puddings or pies wasn’t part of her skill set.
Yet she was an accomplished character. A classical pianist first and a cook/mother/drill sergeant second, she may have marched to the beat of the metronome but in truth, Mom didn’t just play the notes, she made ‘em sing. Same thing with her cooking. It was either sensational or dreadful but never ordinary. She cranked up the volume and drove everyone crazy. She rolled out pie dough with a vodka bottle and when the glop didn’t cooperate, she heaved the muck into a wall, banking into the basin of a ready trash can. It was a Pillsbury Doughboy meets the Attila the Hun moment. A few expletives accompanied that gesture, as you might have guessed. We had ice cream for dessert. Until she invented Bach’s Banana.
No rolling required. It was right up her classy alley. No chilling the dough, no flour flying around the kitchen, this was a straight-out-of-the-basics-custard pudding that she slopped into those little cups and tossed a few graham cracker crumbs “for a little zip” along with the Grand Marnier of course. For years, I thought Grand Marnier was a distant relative.
For the most part, Mom wasn’t a sprinkler. We didn’t have confections with sprinkles or little cookies in shapes of hearts or pancakes poured into clever molds or fresh biscuits kneaded by hand. Nah. When culinary fashion was tuna casserole, she dished out the ultimate Arroz Con Pollo. I guess you could say she was a habanero. Not a sprinkler.
With the exception of Bach’s Pudding. I don’t think the original recipe called for Grand Marnier or lemon zest but Mom’s did. Big Jean as we called her would hit the stove in the morning in order to have the concoction ready for dinner. Her face slathered up like a greased pig with Orange Skin Cream, Mom prepped her pudding in her pink quilted bathrobe punctuated with two big rhinestone buttons, French twist flattened into a hairy pancake, and a few errant tufts standing at attention. She was a vision of loveliness.
Really, when it came down to it, she was a Stroganoff kind of girl. A Wild Rice and Sherry type who scrambled eggs slowly as if she was practicing her Scarlatti. Who basted that turkey with Cabernet Sauvignon and turned her nose up at anything with macaroni. “Don’t add water!” she scolded me, “Give it a shot of brandy!”
It’s not as if she was cultivating truffles in her yard or making her own foie gras. Jean was a classic fifties kind of cook in many ways. The cheese ball. The crab dip. The tomato aspic with white asparagus. Popovers on Sunday morning. Canapes galore. Tomatoes stuffed with horseradish, cream cheese and a shot of Tabasco for a little oomph. An occasional Stouffer’s Spinach Souffle and leathery pot roast. All followed by duets at the piano – the Maple Leaf Rag combined with Ravel waltzes. Oh who knows but she did it all. The music was the real dessert. In truth, the sweet part, the big finish was usually produced by Sven’s Danish Bakery in Pasadena.
Except for Bach’s Banana. It wasn’t on the menu often. Maybe twice a year at the most. So it meant that Big Jean’s domestic streak was in full gear.
In honor of mom who always “made it sing,” here’s the recipe that made me smile as a child… that reassured me Mom knew how to make something that didn’t have vodka in it. While it wasn’t a creation by L’Escoffier or something they’d serve at Perino’s, it was Jean’s creation. She hasn’t been in the kitchen since 1985 when brain cancer sent her to that big piano recital in the sky. At her memorial, we drank Mai Tais and listened to Nat King Cole. It was Unforgettable. And we made it sing just like Jean. And you…you make it sing, too. Salud!Bach’s Banana Pudding Custard:
1 c. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
¼ tsp salt
4 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 qt. regular milk (don’t use skim…even 2% is a stretch)
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. lemon extract
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1T. Grand Marnier depending upon how frisky you feel
2 ripe bananasGraham cracker crust:
1 1/2 cups finely ground graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup white sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
- Prepare crust by mixing all Graham cracker crust ingredients together.
- Place graham cracker crust crumbs in bottom of ramekins, setting aside a few crumbs to sprinkle on the top. Press gently into cups. Chill while preparing the custard.
- Scald milk in large saucepan.
- Mix sugar, cornstarch, salt and lemon zest in a small bowl.
- While milk is warming, whisk egg yolks and whole eggs vigorously in separate bowl.
- Add sugar/cornstarch/salt/lemon zest mixture to eggs and beat like hell. They will become slightly lemony and thicker.
- Once milk is warm, add small amount to egg mixture, tempering the eggs. Blend well.
- Add egg/milk/sugar mixture back to saucepan, into remaining milk. Stir well.
- Cook, whisking constantly, over low or medium-low heat until mixture thickens and coats the spoon…about 7 minutes or so. Do not apply too much heat or mixture can break.
- Cool saucepan…and custard…in ice water bath. Stir frequently to keep “skin” from forming on custard.
- Add vanilla, lemon extract and grand marnier, if desired.
- Slice bananas and fold into custard. Pour into custard cups. Sprinkle with…graham cracker crumbs.
- Chill for at least one hour.