Saturday, March 20, 2010

Goin' Bananas

picture by Anthony Palatta

There's just something about banana bread that makes it such a sweet, soft, and sticky comfort. For that reason, when I first started baking, I knew it was a dish I'd have to master.

One thing I learned from my early trials: If you see a recipe for banana bread that calls for butter, be very afraid. Though it's classified as a "quick bread" in cookbooks, banana bread bakes for a long time, almost an hour, and all that time in the oven means that butter will dry out your cake. (The "quick" means quick to prepare in comparison with regular bread, which you have to let rise over hours.) Better to use a flavorless oil like canola as your fat.

I came across my favorite banana bread recipe in a USA Weekend Magazine insert in the New York Daily News one weekend. It's written by Pam Anderson (not that Pamela Anderson) and is actually a recipe for pumpkin bread that can be modified for bananas. with a few changes. Some, like substituting bananas for pumpkin, or lowering the water and sugar content, make sense. Bananas are plenty wet and sweet.

One change, however, I could not agree with: omitting the spices used to flavor the pumpkin bread (cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg). In fact, I've found a lot of banana bread recipes call for using no spices. Why? Cinnamon and bananas go wonderfully together, and the cloves and nutmeg add an interesting undertone.

I put them in anyway, and added a bit of ginger to boot. The results are pretty great, if I do say so myself. (A friend of mine told me she knows a guy from Morocco who adds a pinch of saffron to his banana bread. Hmm...)

I also found that the 70 minutes of cooking time called for in the recipe didn't work for me. 55 to 60 were plenty.

If you want to find more recipes by Pam Anderson, check out one of her four cookbooks, like Perfect Recipes for Having People Over. In the meantime, here's my riff on her banana bread recipe.

Banana Bread (adapted from Pam Anderson's CookSmart Column in USA Weekend)

TIP: Don't be afraid to go for mushy bananas with lots of brown spots. Bananas that aren't ripe enough won't work well.

3 very ripe bananas
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 3/4 cup bleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.
Mash the bananas; whisk in 1/2 cup water, then brown sugar, then oil, then eggs until smooth.
In a separate bowl, whisk together spices and remaining dry ingredients, then fold into the banana mixture until just combined. Scrape batter into a 9-inch loaf pan. Bake until sides of cake pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted into the banana bread comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 55 minutes.
Let bread stand for a few minutes. Turn onto a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Slice and serve. Recipe doubles easily and freezes well.
Serving suggestion: Serve with whipped cream and/or a strawberry sauce made from frozen strawberries, 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice, and sugar to taste mixed in the food processor.

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