Friday, July 24, 2009

Banana Bread

I tend not to cook the same recipe twice. It's not a hard and fast rule I have, or something that I do intentionally, but there are so many recipes out there, so many things I have yet to try my hand at, that it seems almost a waste to retrace steps I've already taken. Sure there are things I cook for myself all the time, such as the less-than-stellarly-healthful french toast with caramelized bananas that I've developed a penchant for as a late dinner, but that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about meals that you don't just make, but plan ahead to compose.

Pastas, eggs, sandwiches; these aren't things for which I need to rely on recipes to make.

But cakes, for instance, require a recipe. I just don't know off hand the precise measurements required in order to make something rise. And, unlike cooking, baking requires more precise measurements, since there's science and shit working inside that oven. Chemical reactions are required to make cakes rise, to make cookies puff, and if the proportions aren't right, then you wind up with cakes that sink and cookies that spread far too much. But with so many recipes out there, why eat the same thing twice? Sure there are classics, and I am sure that there will be some that I remake over and over again, but likely not until I've done enough experimenting to be sure that the particular incarnation really is the best of the best.

Sometimes, though, there are recipes that I come back to time and time again.

Some of my staple meals have spillover effects. For instance, to afford myself the ability to make my fall-back dinner of french toast and bananas whenever the craving hits, I tend to keep both challah an bananas around my kitchen at most times. While the french toast tends to get better as the challah gets stale (provided I don't get home from the bar a little, uh, hungry, and house half a loaf, and actually give it a chance to get to the stale stage, that is), the bananas are another matter. I'll only buy a couple of them at a time, but it's still rare that I actually go through all of them before they're overripe and past the point where they're acceptable for use with french toast. You'd think I'd learn and just buy one at a time from the fruit guy on the corner, but no, that would actually be wise. So I'll usually throw a couple in the fridge - the skins will turn brown, but the fruit itself is none the worse for wear.

While overripe bananas aren't the greatest in their unadulterated form, it's a well-known fact that the riper the banana, the better it is for baking. The browner they are, the spottier they are, the sweeter they are, and this sweetness really comes through in the baking process. The texture, which is what I think most of us find unappealing about the brown-speckled banana, is not an issue in baking, since the banana is mercilessly smashed, is form sacrificed for its better attributes: its moisture and the sweet, delicate, subtle flavor that is so basic to all of us.

This constant excess of bananas means that I need to find ways to use them, lest they meet the sacrilegious end of the trash can, which is just far too much for me to bear. Typically, this leads to banana bread.

Banana bread is without equal in the world of baked goods. It's so familiar that just the smell of it baking away in the oven is enough to instill warmth within your being. The fact that it's termed a "bread" despite having all the same ingredients (usually) as a cake, and the presence of the word "banana" - a real, honest-to-goodness fruit - in its name even allows you to convince yourself into thinking you're being virtuous for having a slice.

While, as I mentioned, I tend not to make the same recipe twice, banana bread, and this banana bread in particular, is one of those exceptions. When you want banana bread, there's just nothing else that comes close - there are simply no substitutes. And when extra bananas are lying around, there are few things to do with them as enjoyable as turning them into banana bread - sure cookies are cool, and I suppose muffins have their place, but there are just no substitutes when banana bread beckons. In fact, there may actually be no higher honor to an extra banana than playing a leading role in the making of banana bread.

I have tried a lot of banana bread recipes over the last few years, but this one has become my go-to. It's a veritable breeze to put together, the batter takes all of three minutes - max- to put together, and the fact that there's no fat in it makes me feel a little bit better about constantly having some around. Oh, it's also delicious, by the way, and it takes to freezing exceptionally well, so leftovers are not an issue.

It also happens to be an amazing companion to the salted caramel custard from a little place I may have mentioned here before. The last time I had the custard in my freezer I made the mistake (or had the ingenious idea) of throwing together a batch of banana bread. And when I was left in my apartment, working, all Memorial Day weekend, while all of my friends were traipsing around tri-state-area beaches, with nothing but my laptop, some banana bread and a pint of salted caramel custard, I may have developed an unhealthy affinity for banana bread and salted caramel custard sandwiches. What do you want from me? If I was going to be sitting home, drafting documents all weekend, I was going to gorge on banana bread and salted caramel custard sandwiches to my little heart's content - and don't judge me - I do not regret a second of it. I did, however, learn the danger of having both items in my general vicinity at once.

But I digress. This recipe is a keeper, an honest-to-goodness go-to. And while I will undoubtedly stray from it in the future, and I will try other banana breads, I don't doubt that I will continue to fall back on this recipe. It's simplicity and relative healthfulness, and it's wonderful results, have solidified its status as a standby in the kitchen of Shelbs & Cheese.

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Sugar Topping

Adapted from Everybody Likes Sandwiches

Banana bread, and this recipe in particular, is infinitely adaptable. It has no fat or oil of which to speak, so if you're feeling something more healthful, just cut back on the sugar and leave out the chocolate - it's still delicious. And you can enjoy it knowing that it won't leave you feeling all weighed down, or, worse, guilty. And if you're feeling some spice, go ahead -throw in some cloves, some cinnamon, hell, go nuts - add some ginger. Or if you just want to call a spade a spade (or a cake a cake), just whip together some cream cheese frosting and go to town.

Since this recipe has no oil or butter, really, really ripe bananas are necessary for it to achieve its great moistness. So let those bananas get really spotty, and then let them go a couple more days. You won't regret it.

The original recipe calls for an 8x8 square pan. I do not have such a pan, but have a 9x9 square pan. I have tried it in the larger square pan, in two loaf pans, and in a 9 inch circular cake pan. The circular pan has yielded my favorite results thus far, I think because the extra height keeps the cake nice and moist, but play around with it. You really can't go wrong.

3 really ripe bananas, mashed (I've made the recipe with two large bananas with good results, though 3 is certainly preferable)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 c flour
1 1/4 c sugar
1 t baking soda
1 t vanilla
1 T cinnamon
3/4 c chocolate chips

3/4 c chopped walnuts (optional - though I can't do without them)
2 T sugar mixed with 1/2 t cinnamon, for topping

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix mashed bananas with eggs and stir well to combine. Add the flour, sugar, baking soda, vanilla, and cinnamon and mix well with a wooden spoon or rubber/silicone spatula. Add the walnuts, if using, and all but about 2-3 tablespoons of the chocolate chips into the batter.

Pour batter into a buttered square (or circular, if you so desire) cake pan. Sprinkle the entire surface with the cinnamon-sugar mix and dot the surface with the remaining chocolate chips.

Bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into cake comes out clean.

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