Are you a fan of banoffee pie, or does it make your teeth ache just to think of it? And where do you stand on the great biscuit v pastry base debate?
Sometimes, food falls out of context. There's the sticky toffee pudding, that perfectly British dessert, which, in all probability, migrated here from Canada. The scotch egg, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the Mughal nargisi kofta. And the banoffee pie, a wonderfully over-the-top American-style dessert crowned with layers of whipped cream, which first saw the light of day in east Sussex in the early 70s.
Creator Ian Dowding, one-time chef at the Hungry Monk near Eastbourne (sadly felled by the economic downturn last January), is probably heartily sick of talking about his stroke of culinary genius ("it's not as if I'd discovered the double helix, or cold fusion"). He explains it was his take on an American dessert by the rather less catchy title of Blum's Coffee Toffee pie, inspired by the Monk's owner, Nigel Mackenzie, who came up with the name banoffi.
"We thought it was incredibly silly," he says, "but without that we would not have been able to trace the rise in popularity of this concoction. It started with feedback from customers who rang to check it was still on the menu ... within a couple of years I began to see it on a lot of menus of other restaurants ... people reported seeing it on menus in Australia and America, and there were even stories of it being served at No 10 and Buckingham Palace." Though sadly I've been unable to verify such reports (though I yearn for confirmation that Ted Heath and Richard Nixon buried their faces in its whipped cream topping), if they aren't true, they ought to be: at a time when British manufacturing was entering its terminal decline, this was a homegrown invention to be proud of.
That said, things have changed a lot since 1972. Dowding's pet hates are "biscuit crumb bases and that horrible cream in aerosols" - his base is made from shortcrust pastry, like the recipe in Lily Vanilli's Sweet Tooth, although she adds lemon zest and nutmeg to hers. Jamie Oliver goes for a ready-made pie case, but then he is aiming for speed in 30 Minute Meals, and Annie Bell and Simon Rimmer both go for the dreaded biscuit bases, made from crushed digestives welded together with melted butter.
Loth as I am to contradict the pie's creator, he does admit that "nobody ever invents dishes - they evolve", and I think the biscuit base has become popular for a reason. It's delicious and, unlike shortcrust, it doesn't go soggy at the bottom after a few hours, which is useful if you want that sneaky late-night second helping to be as good as the first. I'm particularly taken with the pecans Rimmer adds to his base - they both moderate the sweetness (which is considerable) and add an extra level of crunch.
The next layer of the banoffee pie is the best, as far as I'm concerned: toffee. (Well, more accurately, caramel.) Dowding boils a tin of condensed milk until it's thick and sticky, but these days, in one of the great miracles of modern life, Nestlé has done the hard work for you: instant gratification in a tin, as recommended by Bell and Vanilli. Bell heats hers with butter, light muscovado and vanilla extract, which gives it a richer, slightly firmer texture than the straight caramel, although I'll be swapping the vanilla for a little balancing salt.
Rimmer boils condensed milk with butter and sugar to make a caramel of almost toffee-like chewiness. I love the contrast with the softness of the whipped cream above, but I'm still chomping on it long after the other layers have been swallowed, which doesn't seem ideal.
Oliver, meanwhile, does something rather curious. I would have thought this a prime candidate for some ready-made caramel, but instead he makes a basic caramel by melting caster sugar, and then stirs it into the next layer of the pie.
In fact, Oliver's whole recipe is plain odd: he purees bananas and milk, and then stirs in the caramel to make a strange hybrid layer, which tastes far too intensely of bananas and not enough of caramel. I'll be keeping things separate, and slicing the bananas thinly, rather than laying them out in halves, as Dowding suggests - it gives a more even distribution. Tossing them in a little lemon juice, as Bell suggests, means the pie keeps better, and in the short-term lends just a hint of tanginess to all that sweetness.
Whipped cream is de rigueur here, preferably coffee-flavoured - I try Bell's strong coffee, and Vanilli's espresso powder, and even Oliver's Camp coffee extract, but it's the retro flavour of Dowding's instant coffee granules that grab me. Very 70s. He adds sugar as well, which, like the Camp coffee version, is delicious on its own but too much on the pie: there's more than enough sugar here already, and the cream should provide a foil for it. I'm not sure why Bell adds gelatine either - unless you're planning to keep the pie a while before serving, those softly whipped peaks should stand proud for a few hours.
Dowding scatters his cream with instant coffee, which proves unpleasantly bitter, while Bell and Oliver go for chocolate shavings, which introduces another, unnecessary flavour. Given the nuts in the base, I'm going to go for Vanilli's caramelised pecans, baked with icing sugar until they're gorgeously crackly - a textural contrast to the squidgy layers beneath, and an utterly delicious decoration for that rippling white expanse of whipped cream. Her cinnamon sprinkle, however, is just a distraction from the main attraction.
Last word to Rimmer, who, in an act of heroic madness, makes a coconut milk and caramel sauce for his banoffee pie. This is one lily that needs no such gilding, I promise.
Perfect banoffee pie
For the base
225g digestive biscuits
125g salted butter, melted
For the filling
125g salted butter, diced
100g soft brown sugar
400g dulce de leche or caramel
½ tsp salt
For the topping
15g icing sugar
4-5 ripe bananas
Squeeze of lemon juice
275ml double cream
¼ tsp coffee granules
Whizz the biscuits to crumbs in a food processor (or put them in a freezer bag and smash them to smithereens with a rolling pin), roughly chop the pecans and stir together with the melted butter. Press the mixture into a 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin to line the base and sides. Chill while you make the filling.
Melt the butter and sugar together in a pan, and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the dulce de leche and the salt and bring to the boil, stirring constantly until smooth. Pour over the base, and chill for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 180C, line a baking tray and rinse and drain the pecans. Put into a bowl and sprinkle with the icing sugar, then spread out on to the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, shaking occasionally. Allow to cool. (The pie can be made up to this point up to 48 hours in advance.)
Thinly slice the bananas and toss with the lemon juice. Arrange on top of the cooled caramel in concentric circles.
Whip the cream and the coffee granules into soft peaks and spread on top of the bananas. Arrange the candied pecans on top and serve.
Banoffee pie: are you a fan, or does it make your teeth ache just to think of it? And can anyone provide a review of the original Hungry Monk version?
Felicity Cloake's perfect banoffee pie: base, toffee, bananas, topping and extras. All photographs: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian