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Monday, March 7, 2011

Mauritius: Rum-Banana Tart

On March 12, the island nation of Mauritius celebrated their independence, which they won in 1968 after more than 250 years of French and British rule. Sounds like as good a reason as any to join the party.

When first discovered by Portugese explorers in the 1500's, Mauritius was a lush island country with no human population - not surprising, given its remoteness; it's 560 miles east of Madagascar, itself almost 800 miles from the African mainland. What the explorers did find was the dodo. This flightless 40-pound bird, seemingly designed for helplessness, was quickly and famously exterminated by human settlers and by the boars the settlers brought.

In the dodo's place rose a diverse human community that now numbers a little under a million and a half, a cultural salad of European, African, Indian, and Chinese influence. Officially, the language is English, but the people mostly speak their own Mauritian Creole while reading the news or watching TV in French. Such an assortment would have to produce a fascinating cuisine, and apparently it does.

While reading up on Mauritian cuisine, I discovered that it's very big on tomatoes, chiles, onions, and garlic. Seafood, tropical fruits, hearts of palm, and the occasional coconut all feature prominently. I was mulling around some ideas along those lines when I discovered a treat so common in Mauritius as to be the unofficial national dessert: tartes bananes, or French banana tarts.

I then discovered that sugarcane is a foundation of the economy on Mauritius, growing on 70% of the cultivated land in a primarily agricultural nation. Much of the rest is growing bananas, which just happen to be one of my favorite fruits. There goes that savory thing - this installment of World Piece is going to have to be a dessert.

Most of the recipes I found for tartes bananes looked inadequate to represent all the spicy, flavorful Creole cuisine I've been reading about. So I filled a basic French butter pastry with a cooked banana filling, as is traditional, but I added some rum (which Mauritius has recently begun to produce in quantity) and a touch of vanilla (which is also produced there), and in a nod to the Asian community on the island, I threw in just a hint of ginger.

It's sweet but not too sugary, and goes beautifully with a cup of coffee and some company. I took this one into work and put it next to the coffee pot, from whence it quickly disappeared. I'll call that a success!


Pastry for lattice-topped pie
5-6 ripe bananas
6 Tbsp sugar
¼ cup rum
1 Tbsp vanilla
1 tsp ginger
1 Tbsp milk

Roll out the pastry, line the bottom of a pie plate with it and trim the edges, then pop it into the freezer. (Reserve enough dough for the lattice topping and keep that in the fridge until you're ready for it.) Let the bottom crust freeze in the pie plate for an hour, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Place a large sheet of parchment paper in the pie crust and fill it with dried beans or pie weights. Bake the crust for 15 minutes while you make the filling; remove the parchment and beans when it comes out of the oven. Don't turn the oven off!

For the filling, mash the bananas and sugar together in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add rum and ginger, and mash some more until it's mostly even; a few small banana chunks are fine. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens and clumps together, pulling away from the pot. Take it off the heat, stir in the vanilla, and set aside while you roll out the crust for the lattice topping.

Spoon the filling into the parbaked pie crust, spreading it around evenly. Cut strips of pastry and arrange in a lattice pattern on top - this can be as open or tight a lattice as you like. Brush the top with milk and pop it back in the oven for another 45 minutes or until done. Let it cool at room temperature at least a half-hour, then serve warm or chilled.

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