Père Labat’s Banana Pie

I spent a very enjoyable Saturday testing out recipes with good friends as part of my buccaneer cooking project, and easily the most successful one was a banana pie based on a description by Jean Baptiste Labat:

Banana pie

Plantains, (bananes), just like figues de l’Amerique, can be cooked in tartes. They are prepared with sugar, cinnamon, and a little lemon or orange peel. Note that the Spanish call the figue d’Amerique the banane and the banane the plantain.

The good father’s linguistic bemusement is understandable. The word families surrounding banana and plantain were used to refer to various fruit of the genus throughout the 17th and 18th centuries not just in different European languages, but by different writers in the same language. Following his description, though, we can be quite certain that what Labat calls a figue d’Amerique, an “American fig”, is what we would call a banana today, though one smaller and rounder than out modern Cavendish. That gave me the first indication modern bananas would not be out of place in this recipe.

The second question was what Labat meant by a tarte. In seventeenth-century usage, those could be both open and enclosed, much like pie in modern English, and there are descriptions of several kinds of edible crust. Those crusts were typically ‘short’ by having fat and/or eggs added. I decided to go with a modern tarte crust because I was much more interested in the filling.

The next question was how to prepare the filling, and here again parallel recipes are little help. It turns out fruit could be put into tartes raw, pre-cooked, or turned into a mash, and Labat gives no indication which he means. For my first experiment, I mashed banana with sugar, cinnamon, and lemnon peep. The fruit almost immediately liquefied and though the small hand pies I made were acceptable, the filling leaked.

So this time, I sliced the bananas thinly and layered them in a pie dish lined with crust. The first layer was topped off with sugar, cinnamon, and fresh zest. One tart was prepared with orange and two with lemon to see how the result varied. A second layer of banana slices followed, and then we covered one of the tartes with a lid and the other two with a latticework of strips leaving some space between. That way we could see whether the taste would differ between an open and enclosed filling.

Bananas with sugar, cinnamon, and lemon zest

The closed tarte was the clear favourite. Open to the air, the bananas quickly turned an unappetising brown and dried out. The filling in the closed tarte stayed white and juicy and retained a fresher taste. We also found that the orange zest complemented it better. I am happy with this recipe, but will try variations with plantains, sliced raw and pre-cooked, and weith smaller, more aromatic bananas if I can get them.

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