It's early morning at Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, North Carolina. Sunlight creeps through skylights to illuminate battered wood floors and mingle with smoke from a wood fire burning down to coals for two adjacent barbecue pits. I'm not here for barbecue; I'm here for banana pudding pie, a Buxton specialty that pastry chef Ashley Capps has agreed to make for me. This is no small favor; the pie is a complex, multilayered beast. “You know the term easy as pie? It's so false. It's just easy to eat,” she says with a laugh.
As a child, Capps was fond of her mother's meringue-topped banana pudding. Transforming the childhood dessert into a pie fit for a restaurant was “a combination of technique and nostalgia,” a blending of her “inner child and Southern roots.”
She builds the pie with a mesmerizing confidence, carefully forming the crumb crust into the corner of the pie plate, the “neck” of the pie, so the slices stay sturdy. She stirs the pudding with a spatula, not a whisk, so the custard won't curdle in the corners of the pot. She insists that cooking the egg whites to 168 degrees is the key to a stable meringue, “although the textbooks disagree.”
While she works, she talks about the arc of a culinary career: the struggle of learning the process and techniques; the discipline of repetition; and after sufficient growth and self-awareness, the feeling of fulfillment from making the same thing as close to perfect every time. Her passion for the process is evident.
The banana pudding pie was a hit on the Buxton Hall menu from day one. And even though Ashley left the restaurant on good terms last year to pursue other opportunities, the pie remains. Call it a little slice of nostalgia.