Laura had always assumed that the banoffee pie is an American invention. As far as I know, it isn’t – it was invented in Essex in 1972. But it’s an understandable misconception to have. Americans love bananas. We love toffee. We love pie. Makes sense.
Plus, the first banoffee pie was originally based on an American dessert – although it was a coffee cream pie, not a banana one, that was the source of its inspiration. Odd, since some form of banana cream pie appeared in American cookbooks as early as 1887. Coffee cream pies came much later.
So while the addition of condensed milk caramel is a relatively recent British innovation, it seems banana cream pie is just as American as that other pie. Maybe even more so. And yet, growing up, I didn’t eat much of it. I did have a fair amount of apple, pumpkin, pecan, lemon meringue, and key lime pie, in addition to lots and lots of cheesecake. But banana cream never found its way into my pie-intake rotation. I can’t say why – maybe it’s because I didn’t much like bananas as a young child, or maybe it just seemed hopelessly retro. It wasn’t until I was a college student that I discovered how exquisite banana cream pie can be.
That revelation came at The Apple Pan, which I previously mentioned in my post on beer and burgers in LA. The Apple Pan sits on the corner of Pico and Glendon across from the Westside Pavilion, one of those silly late-’80s shopping malls that probably seemed exciting and colorful when it was built, but now feels cheap, outdated, and claustrophobic. Apple Pan predates the Pavilion by 40 years and also feels like a living artifact of its era, but it has a timeless quality nonetheless – kind of like a Norman Rockwell painting. Even the employees, mostly men over 50, seem like they could have been working there since day one.
The burgers at Apple Pan are classical yet distinctive, featuring a unique smoky sauce that basically tastes like a 50-50 mixture of ketchup and barbecue sauce. The patties are small but flavorful, not to be overpowered by the massive puck of iceberg lettuce tucked inside each bun. They aren’t LA’s best burgers, but they are tasty as hell, and they’ve withstood the test of time.
And then there are the pies. Their apple and pecan pies are delicious, of course, but not even in the same league as their banana cream pie. I first tried it while crashing with a friend at his home in Bel Air, during a week I now wistfully, rose-tintedly recall as one of the most decadent and carefree times of my life. At the Lawrence residence, takeaway Apple Pan pies were an occasional treat. On my hosts’ recommendation, I tried the banana cream and immediately recognized that it was one of the best pies I’d ever had. But I lived in east LA; I wasn’t local enough to the Apple Pan to really become a regular and develop a deep nostalgia for it, so over time the memory faded.
I went back to Apple Pan in August with a friend. I was overcome with excitement when I saw they had banana cream pie, and I was soon enjoying that very special kind of delirious pleasure that comes at the moment that giddy anticipation is fulfilled, and high expectations are surpassed. The pie, which was easily four fingers thick, lit up my tastebuds like a pinball machine. The crust is firm and sturdy yet fall-apart flaky and tasting of almost pure butter. The bananas themselves are evenly sliced at a perfect ripeness with just a tiny al dente bite to them, and sweetened with a fine coating of sugar that dissolves to form a slick banana glaze. A just-right amount of cold, smooth vanilla custard tops the bananas, and an angelic cloud of whipped cream lightens and completes the whole construction. It is a masterpiece of pie art.
It’s easy to be dismissive of food that has gone out of fashion, whether it’s banana cream pie, banoffee pie, or steak and kidney pie. But these things become popular for a reason, and it’s nice to be reminded of why. I suppose we just have to remember to be open-minded not only when it comes to new things, but to old things as well.
Further reading: LA Weekly.