My feelings about bananas are not a secret… suffice it to say, I’m not a fan. I’ve largely come around when it comes to banana baked goods, and that is a good thing. How sad would it be if I was missing out on stuff like banana bread and banana cake?! Let’s not even entertain that sordid alternate universe. I’m glad that I’ve mostly transcended my aversion to the mushy, slimy fruit, at least as long as they’re blended into a batter; if we’re talking about raw ones, I’m right back at square one. Fortunately these Banana Cupcakes with Vanilla Pastry Cream from BAKED: New Frontiers in Baking fall into the former category. Baked Sunday Mornings has just cracked open this classic from 2008 after finishing 3 years of baking through Baked Occasions, and this is our second recipe from that first book. It’s so strange to be done with Occasions (which itself is 3 years old now) and to go back to where BAKED all started, as far as books go. There’s something very comforting and familiar about it, and yet, I really haven’t baked all that much from this book. I think it has to do with knowing all the BAKED recipes and bakery visits that came after it, so there’s a warm and fuzzy nostalgia there. Anyway, I’m very glad we’re making the banana cupcakes, as I definitely would’ve skipped right on over these back in 2008…
The cupcakes are definitely distinct from banana bread in that a) they are not loaf-shaped, and b) the cake possesses a lighter, fluffier texture. The recipe was very straightforward, and I was happy to use up some bananas that I’d had in the freezer for a while. What I was apprehensive about was the pastry cream. I am good at cookies and cakes and other stuff, but I have realized that I flat-out suck at making custards and curds. I don’t know what it is, but I cannot seem to get a handle on the correct technique, as most of my recent attempts have been abject failures. There was the time I was trying to make Italian pastry cream for a millefoglie cake (Italian puff pastry cake) for my ongoing Italian Desserts blog series— that seemed promising enough… until it wouldn’t thicken and the mixture turned into a weird, curdled mess. Then there was the time I made rhubarb curd for my Rhubarb Tart, which just never thickened to anything resembling a fruit curd; fortunately I was able to rescue that one with a little gelatin, but this band-aid doesn’t always work, and I’d rather just make it right the first time. And then, there was the time I made the Lemon Drop Cake from this very book for a wedding, and I couldn’t get the lemon curd filling to set, so the cake layers were sloshing around on top of lemon gel while I tried to frost it anyway. Oh, and the time we made Chai Spice Trifle for BSM and my pudding was just kind of mealy… I think you get the picture. I’m not sure what my custard handicap is, but this simply cannot go on. Fortunately I had better results with this pastry cream than I’ve had with other recent recipes, but there is still some room for improvement.
I had hope because this recipe calls for half-and-half rather than milk, which is traditional, so already it was starting off thicker. You heat the half-and-half in a pot (use one that gives you plenty of space to stir), and meanwhile whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and salt until the mixture is smooth and pale yellow. That part: check. You’ll then gradually pour half of the warm half-and-half into the egg/sugar mixture, whisking the whole time to avoid a scrambled-eggs situation, then pour the whole thing back into the pot with the remaining half-and-half. This goes back on the heat, and you are supposed to whisk it constantly for about 6 minutes, until it thickens to the consistency of pudding. Well, I had the opposite issue— despite turning down the heat, my custard thickened very rapidly, after about only 3 minutes. I was nervous about continuing to cook it, because the emulsion would probably break at some point, so I pulled it off the heat after only a few minutes, added the vanilla extract, and pressed it through a fine-mesh sieve. It was jiggly and thick like pudding, so I was cautiously optimistic that after chilling, it would hold swirls on top of a cupcake. However, it was still just a touch grainy, and the jiggly thing really is more of a pudding attribute than a characteristic of pastry cream, but at that point I was just happy it was usable!
While it chilled in the fridge, I made the cupcakes, which were fortunately much less eventful. You cream the butter and brown sugar, then add eggs, followed by mashed banana (ugh). My mixture was fairly separated and unappetizing, but this does happen with banana mixtures sometimes. Once I added the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt), it came together pretty well, though it wasn’t the most satiny batter I’ve ever made.
I portioned the batter into my cupcake pan and ended up with 30 rather the 24 expected, which baked in about 22 minutes and became quite golden on top. I would recommend not filling the cupcake wells more than ⅔ of the way full because the cupcakes will pull a “muffin top” and flatten out all weird if they are too full. I actually found that the most attractive ones were the third batch (the unexpected 6 extras), where the batter had to sit for almost an hour while the first 2 trays baked. These last ones had slight domes, which looked nicer than the completely flat tops of the other 24. That being said, they were all great for frosting due to their flatness.
The moment of reckoning came when I took the pastry cream out of the fridge. It had definitely thickened over the course of the 6 hours or so that it was in there, which meant that frosted cupcakes were a go to bring to work the next day. I still wasn’t thrilled with the jiggly texture thing, but maybe this particular pastry cream is supposed to be that way? (wishful thinking?) Anyway, I transferred the cold pastry cream to a pastry bag and started piping swirls; then I realized that I was piping way too much onto each cupcake. Pastry cream is different than frosting; I’m not sure even Frosting People (i.e. those who prefer a high frosting-to-cake ratio) would want to bite into that much pastry cream, but as an Equal Opportunity Cake-and-Frosting Person, I may not be the best person to comment on that. Anyway, this excessive frosting quantity, in addition to the extra cupcakes, meant that I ran out of frosting and had several naked cupcakes left over. Not the end of the world, as some people don’t like frosting at all and would happily eat the cupcake base as a muffin. Everybody wins.
I topped the cupcakes with Valrhona Opalys and Dulcey Crunchy Pearls rather than slices of fresh banana (we don’t need to rehash my reasoning for that), which I thought looked both fun and a little elegant. My tasters really liked them, and I’d likely make them again once I get a better handle on the pastry cream texture. What I would probably do next time is add a peanut butter filling, or possibly infuse peanut butter into the pastry cream (putting the cart before the horse a bit, but hopefully I’ll get there eventually). I slathered a little PB onto the cupcake that I was nibbling on, and I thought it was a great flavor combination.
The recipe for these classic Banana Cupcakes with Vanilla Pastry Cream can be found at Baked Sunday Mornings. Any banana lover will absolutely love them and ask for more. And even those who are wary of banana-flavored stuff may just enjoy them anyway, just like me. Check out my fellow bakers’ cupcakes on the BSM website as well!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2017.