Balthazar, restaurateur Keith McNally’s French brasserie in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood, was the first restaurant I wanted to go to the first time I visited New York City. I was 19, and listened to They Might Be Giants’ “New York City” pretty much on repeat during the car ride down from college in upstate NY. I had a clipping from a New York magazine in my notebook with the restaurant’s address, and a plan to order onion soup, french fries, and dessert. That was, and, with the addition of a glass of wine, still is my order at Balthazar, where I go about once a month. It was something like the New York and the Paris of my childhood imagination, mashed up into one silly but hopeful dream.
One thing I’ll never forget is the relief I felt when I sat down at the bar that first time. When I walked in I was shaking with nerves — a gal from the suburbs of Chicago couldn’t possibly be cool enough for this place, New York’s hottest restaurant — and yet the hostess looked at me (and my book-filled backpack and worn coat) with no judgement, and guided me to a quiet stool at the corner of the bar, instructing the bartender to “take good care of her.”
The other thing I’ll always remember is how much the dessert impressed me. I ordered the profiteroles that first day, but eventually made my way through the whole dessert menu. Even though I dislike bananas, I have ordered the banana ricotta tart — a menu item the chefs have tried, and failed, to take off the menu twice — more times than I can count. It’s a study in flavor contrasts: The cloying sweetness of bananas is tempered by the bitterness of the burnt sugar, the softness of the tart cheese fits nicely next to the crisp cookie base, the warm bananas, the frozen ice cream. Here’s the recipe, excerpted from Reggie Nadelson’s new book, At Balthazar: The New York Brasserie at the Center of the World.
Editor’s note: Buy really good quality banana ice cream if you don’t want to go through the trouble of making your own.
Justine’s Favorite Banana Ricotta Tart, served at Balthazar, NYCI used to take my goddaughter Justine to Balthazar after school for this dessert, and now, having just had her own little girl, Rosie, she plans to raise her on it. This is a long recipe but the results are richly worth it.
4 ounces confectioner’s sugar
2 ounces white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 ounces almond flour
10 ounces all-purpose flour
1 pound butter
6 ounces ricotta cheese
1⁄2 cup sugar
2 eggs, plus one egg white
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
Banana ice cream base
1 quart heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ripe bananas
12 egg yolks
Banana cream caramel sauce ingredients
1⁄2 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 cups heavy cream
Mix butter and all-purpose flour in a mixing bowl.
Add the eggs and vanilla, and mix until incorporated. Add the almond flour and the sugars and mix until just incorporated. Do not over-mix.
Once the dough is mixed, put it on some plastic wrap and roll into a tube about 3 inches around.
Preheat oven to 325F. With the plastic still on, slice the dough into 1/8-inch thick cookies. Throw away plastic. Line half-sheet pan with parchment paper. Put the cookies on top. Bake for 20 minutes or until nice and golden. Set aside to cool.
Ricotta cheese filling instructions
Mix the cheese together with the sugar until fluffy and creamy. Add the two eggs, egg white, and vanilla extract and mix until incorporated. Add the cream and mix until incorporated so that the mixture is nice and smooth. Place the mixture in a 2-inch-deep 8- x 12-inch baking pan and place the pan in a deeper roasting pan.
Preheat the oven to 325F. Add the hot water to the roasting pan until the water reaches about 1⁄3 up the side of the baking pan. Bake for 1 hour or until set. Remove from oven and let cool completely.
Cookie and filling assembly instructions
Put cooled almond cookies on a plate. When the cheese mixture has cooled, put it in a pastry bag with a small or medium tip. Pipe from the middle of the cookie to cover it, making a dome-like shape.
Banana ice cream base instructions
Mash bananas well. In a large saucepan, mix with heavy cream, milk, sugar, and vanilla. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
Mix the egg yolks in a bowl with a small amount of the milk mixture, about 4 ounces at a time. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon over medium heat until the mixture coats the back of the spoon and is quite thick.
Strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Refrigerate at least 24 hours.
Run mixture in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturers directions. Spread parchment paper evenly in half-sheet pan, spray with cooking spray.
When the ice cream is almost fully frozen, spread it over parchment paper, about a half-inch thick. This will become the base of the dessert. It is then frozen solid and cut out with a 2-inch round cookie cutter. (This ice cream is so good, I could happily eat it on its own for dessert!)
Banana cream caramel sauce instructions
Mix water, sugar, and lemon juice and place in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until caramelized, about 10 minutes.
Slowly add the heavy cream and boil until bubbly like gazpacho. Add the banana, mix, and cook for another 4 minutes until thick. Punch with a hand blender, strain, and cool. Pour into a squeeze bottle.
Slice the 6 bananas into thin coins. Lay coins over each dome-shaped ricotta cheese-topped cookie. Lightly dust each banana-topped dome with sugar and caramelize with a blow torch.
For each plate you’re going to serve each tart on, put a dot of the banana caramel cream sauce in the middle of the plate. Place the ice cream puck on the sauce, then place the caramelized banana cookie dome on top of it.
Squeeze a circle of the banana cream caramel sauce over the whole dish. If you haven’t got a squeeze bottle, you can drizzle with a spoon, but it won’t look as good. Balthazar puts a little bit of creme angeles with the caramel sauce, but enough is enough. It’s a step too far for me.
Text copyright © 2017 by Reggie Nadelson. From At Balthazar: The New York Brasserie at the Center of the World. Published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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