We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Southern Art and Banana Cream Pie

My Traveling Tales by Michelle


   Similar to my sister, Linda, I am especially fond of coincidence (aka synchronicity). You know... those times when the intersection of one's collective experience is connected in a surprising or unexpected way. My sister, Juliette, likes to call this type of occurrence a "coinky-dink". Such was the case this past October, when I connected Chef Art Smith with my dear friend Stephanie; two people that have not yet had the pleasure of meeting each other.
   I arrived in Atlanta on a rainy evening. The taxi ride to the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead was slow due to numerous accidents on the freeway. The taxi driver grumbled that the rain was the first significant downpour of the transitioning seasons, and he said, with exasperation, that "nobody" knows how to drive in the rain. I think the same complaint is bemoaned by professional driver's (and everyone else, for that matter) around the world.


    Checking-in to the hotel was a breeze, the bell captain whisked my bags to the front desk, and the manager granted my wish for a quiet room with a view. The room was adorned in colors of black, red and gold, and the huge windows framed a view of downtown and the brightly lit water color of the streets below streaming with traffic. From the water streaks on my window, I knew I would not be venturing outside of the hotel. I would also be dining alone. My colleagues were not due to arrive until after my self-imposed bedtime.

Self-portrait with camera in the hotel room window.
   I rode the elevator to the lobby, and located the lounge. I ordered a Cosmopolitan and took in my surroundings. Across the main room I spied a gorgeous buffet of desserts: cakes, pies, cobblers, chocolate delicacies and candies. Beyond the sweets table stood a hostess stand near the draped entrance to the restaurant, Southern Art. Eureka! I had found the source for my evening's dinner. I also admired the multi-colored chandeliers.

The sweets table at Southern Art in the InterContinental Hotel Buckhead.
   Before long, I was comfortably seated in a wing chair at a table for two on the upper tier reached by climbing a few steps. The hostess amiably informed me that the restaurant was not officially open to the public. By serving hotel guests, the staff was preparing for the media blitz and the forthcoming Grand Opening later in the week. Seated at the table nearby were three gentlemen, one dressed in black chef's attire. They had several dessert plates on the table and they were talking intently.
   My waiter, a kindly gentleman, brought me fresh biscuits and pickled vegetables to savor while I contemplated the menu. I was pleasantly surprised that my waiter knew the menu intimately. Every entree that I inquired about he would describe to me in detail, and even knew the cooking techniques. When I complimented him on his knowledge, he said that he had tried everything on the menu. Not just him, but the entire staff. Good going, Chef! My pet peeve when dining out is when the staff is unacquainted with the menu. I loathe the response from a waiter, "I've never tried the ________, but it is a very popular item."

   I eventually settled on the center cut filet mignon served with a pureed chutney sauce, sauteed spinach and whipped sweet potatoes. As I savored my meal, the chef rose from his table, and stopped by to see me on his way to the kitchen. Chef introduced himself as Art and inquired after my meal. It was at that moment that I connected the double entendre of his name and the restaurant's. "My meal is delicious", I said, and I meant it. Chef Art asked if I was planning on having dessert. Truthfully, I wasn't, even though the abundant display I had encountered earlier was very tempting. Inherent in traveling and eating in restaurants, is the danger of packing on the pounds, but I asked politely what he would recommend. After a moment's reflection he endorsed the Banana Cream Pie, listed as Banana Pudding on the menu. We exchanged a couple more pleasantries and Chef Art departed for the kitchen. 

Southern Art's Banana Pudding.
   After my sumptuous dinner was cleared, I succumbed to the Banana Cream Pie. As I savored the dessert, I realized I had forgotten just how good Banana Cream Pie can be. Midway through the dessert, Chef Art stopped by once again to ask after the pie. "Out of this world", I replied. I complimented him on the gorgeous sweets table, and he said, I wish you would try my aunt's peanut brittle. I mock groaned, and said I couldn't possibly eat another dessert. I had to draw the line somewhere. Without a moment's hesitation he called to the nearby waiter to put together a to-go box box for me. I went upstairs to my room and peaked inside. There was a mound of shiny peanut brittle and two beguiling truffles moonlighting as lollipops. I discovered the next day just how tasty the treats are. Chef Art's generous gesture toward me illustrated exactly what I have always heard about legendary Southern hospitality.


   I ate at Southern Art many times over the next few days for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything that I tried was delicious and the food was beautifully presented. Chef Art was there morning, afternoon and night. I kid you not. The man is nothing if not filled with reservoirs of strength and stamina. The restaurant and the three menus are reflections of his Southern heritage. He even has the pickle recipe stitched into the carpet leading up a set of stairs. If I heard correctly, his aunt's peanut brittle recipe is stitched into the carpet on the second set of stairs. I admire Chef Art's hands-on approach and his obvious love for the business.
   On my third night in Atlanta, I ate at Southern Art once again for dinner with my friend and colleague, Adel. He was craving dessert, and I highly recommended the Banana Cream Pie. Sad to say for my Weight Watcher's program, I ordered my second piece of Banana Cream Pie. It was just as tasty as I remembered it two nights before (hee, hee). Counting calories can commence tomorrow.

The whole pie as displayed on the sweets table at Southern Art.
   Similar to the first night, our waitress knew the menu inside and out. She gushed over Chef Art... "Well, you know, he has competed on Iron Chef and was Oprah's personal chef." I knitted my eyebrows and pursed my lips. I dove deep in to my memory banks. I watch Food Network. I own hundreds of cookbooks. I devour food magazines (figuratively, of course!). Chef Art was not on my radar. I drew a complete blank.
   Soon after my return home, I was perusing the cooking section of Bookmans, a popular second-hand book and entertainment exchange store in Tucson. I was not looking for anything in particular and my eyes quickly roamed the titles, when my brain registered "Art Smith". Stop. Go back. I located the book and pulled it off the shelf. I experienced instinctive recognition on two fronts: 1) On the cover was the chef I met in Atlanta whose Southern hospitality was at the forefront of his operation, and 2) this is a cookbook that my friend Stephanie owns.


   When I recognized the cover, I knew without looking further that the cookbook contained the recipe for an excellent Spring Lasagna. Stephanie has prepared the creamy white lasagna on several occasions by popular request. With a wry smile on my face and blurting a small laugh, I could hear the word "coinky-dink" echoing through my head. I called Stephanie, and said, "I have a story for you." When I reached the part when Chef Art introduced himself to me, Stephanie erupted in laughter; instant recognition. I laughed, too. Chef Art - Oprah's former personal chef, Iron Chef contender, cookbook author, and multiple restaurant owner - was unknown to me, a self-subscribed foodie. Now that I've connected all the dots, while standing in the middle of a book store, I think how big the world is and yet so small. It makes me love life all the more.


Banana Cream Pie

   Now that my daughter is older, I feel compelled to make her birthday dessert from scratch. When I asked after her heart's desire, Maddie announced that she's not really a cake person. News to me. Especially in the chocolate category. Maddie was leaning towards pie and asked for my input. Perhaps her new predilection for pie on her birthday is genetic... inherited from her grandfather Paul, who always prefers pie on his birthday. After my experience at Southern Art, I suggested Banana Cream Pie. She agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
   Although the recipe below is not Chef Art's, it is also very delicious and very similar to the one I enjoyed in Atlanta. I've made this version over the years, notably for a Cajun Potluck party with fantastic results. The recipe is adapted from Emeril Lagasse, who's eponymous restaurant in New Orleans is well-known and respected.
   In the past, I have topped the pie with whipped cream piped from a pastry bag. Recently, for Maddie's birthday pie, we applied the cream with an Isi Whip-It! So easy, and fun.

Ingredients:
4-5 medium ripe bananas

Pastry Cream
2 cups heavy cream
1-1/2 cups whole milk
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
1 Tbsp vanilla paste
3 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
½ cup cornstarch

Graham Cracker Crust for 9-inch pie pan
1-1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (135g)
¼ cup sugar
4 Tbsps unsalted butter, melted

Whipped Cream Topping
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2-3 tsps granulated sugar
½ to 1 tsp vanilla extract
-or-
In the Isi Whip-It!:
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 shot Flavorganics® French Vanilla Syrup

Garnishes:
Caramel Sauce
Chocolate Sauce
Shaved Chocolate
Sugared Nuts

The incredibly edible pastry cream.
Procedure:
1. Combine the heavy cream, the milk, and ½ cup of the sugar in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a gentle boil, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat.
2. Combine the egg yolks, eggs, cornstarch, vanilla bean paste, and 1 cup of the sugar in a medium bowl, and whisk pale yellow in color. Set aside.
3. Whisk 1 cup of the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks. Gradually add the egg mixture to the hot cream, whisking constantly. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer, stirring continuously with a whisk or a wooden spoon to cook out the cornstarch and the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. (The mixture may separate slightly. If so, remove from the heat and beat with an electric mixer until thick and smooth.) Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing down against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill in the refrigerator for about 4 hours, or overnight.

The pie crust is ready to be prebaked.
4. For the crust, preheat oven to 350°F. While the crackers are still in the sealed package, I like to give them a good bash with a rolling pin. From there I open the package and pour the crumbs directly into the food processor. I add the melted butter and sugar and give a good whirl. Alternatively, combine the graham cracker crumbs and sugar in a medium bowl and mix well. Add the butter and mix well. Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan. Top with aluminum pie tin and with a circular motion, press the crust tightly into the pan. Bake until browned, about 25 minutes. Cool for 10 to 15 minutes.


5. To assemble, spread ½ cup of the custard over the bottom of the prepared crust, smoothing with the back of a large spoon or rubber spatula. Arrange enough banana slices (not quite one-third) in a tight, tiled pattern over the custard, pressing down with your hands to pack them firmly. Repeat to build second layer, using ¾ cup of the custard and enough bananas to cover, smoothing down the layer evenly. For the third layer, spread ¾ cup of custard over the bananas and top with the remaining bananas, starting 1-inch from the outer edge and working toward the center. Spread 1 cup of custard evenly over the bananas to prevent discoloration. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
6. In a medium bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar and the vanilla extract and whip until stiff peaks form.


7. Remove the pie from the refrigerator. With a sharp knife dipped in hot water, cut the pie into equal slices. Transfer the slices to dessert plates. Fill a pastry bag with the whipped cream - or simply use an Isi Whip-It! - and pipe onto each slice. (Alternately, spread the whipped cream evenly over the pie before cutting.)
8. Drizzle each slice with the caramel sauce and chocolate sauce, sprinkle with the chocolate shavings and sugared nuts, if desired, and serve.

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