I always think it’s funny on Top Chef when, during the inevitable challenge that involves making some kind of dessert, the chefs discuss the difference between a chef and a baker. The conversation always seems to follow the same formula: the chef is an artistic improviser who works in the moment, adding a dash of this and a dash of that before perfecting a dish. Whereas a baker is a scientist, one who loves exact measurements, who desires precision above all else because, unlike in cooking, when you miss a vital ingredient in baking (say, baking powder in a cake batter) then your cake is kaput. The chefs always make bakers sound like boring, fussy squares, who just aren’t as fun as the spontaneous, artistic and impulsive chefs.
I guess this makes me an odd duck then, because I am incredibly imprecise, love to experiment with recipes and throw in bits of this and that that weren’t called for, and yet I really, really love baking. Ever since my mother showed me how to make Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies (probably in utero) one of my favorite childhood activities was playing Princesses with my sister, baking up a batch of cookies, and pretending to distribute them among the poor in our kingdom (the poor being my sister and I. And maybe our little brother, if he wasn’t being irritating and chasing us with one of his many swords).
Granted, many of my baking “experiments” haven’t always turned out so well. There was the time I tried to make cookies by using proportions of ingredients that seemed similar to other cookie recipes, and came up with dry and brittle hockey pucks. There was the time I made an apple cake with margarine instead of butter (we were out), and ended up with a greasy and dense mass that even my perpetually hungry boyfriend wouldn’t eat. And don’t even get me started on the loaves of rock-hard bread I’ve produced – loaves that, in a pinch and with the right amount of brute force, could have served as deadly weapons.
However, I had a completely successful baking experiment with banana bread the other day, and I thought I needed to share it, since they are incredibly rare.
This weekend I realized that our two bananas were, shall we say, waaay past their eating prime, and I decided that I had the perfect excuse to make banana bread. My go-to recipe author for cakes and quick breads is master baker and baking genius Rose Levy Beranbaum, who is more passionate about baking than any other cookbook author I’ve ever encountered. However, her cake baking technique is a bit different than my other cookbooks: her claim to fame is that she took an established cake-mixing method for high-ratio shortening cakes, called the two-stage method, and developed a way it could be used for butter cakes. This means that rather than start her cake by creaming together the butter and sugar and then adding the other ingredients, she mixes her sugar with the other dry ingredients, and then mixes in the butter. Meanwhile she mixes the eggs and other wet ingredients separately and then adds them to the dry ingredients/butter mixture in three batches, mixing for 20 seconds between every addition to aerate the batter and strengthen the cake’s structure.
However, I couldn’t actually use either of her banana cake/bread recipes in The Cake Bible and The Bread Bible since they called for sour cream, which I didn’t have. I found another banana bread recipe in Nigella Lawson’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess book that I had all the ingredients for, but it called for melted butter, and I didn’t know if it would result in the light, tender crumb I was seeking.
So I decided to alter the recipe and use the Beranbaum Cake Mixing Method on the Nigella recipe. Granted, I made a couple of other changes (substituted 1/2 cup of wheat flour for white flour, since I like how the nuttiness of the wheat flour compliments the sweetness of the bananas, added some cinnamon, upped the amount of baking soda, added a bit more salt). And I had to add a bit more of the wet ingredients with the butter, since the moisture from the butter wasn’t quite enough to achieve the consistency I wanted at the early stage.
Even so, the result was absolutely divine and fluffy banana bread, with a light and almost creamy texture. The only thing I would have done differently a second time round is to add some lemon zest to the dry ingredients, since the cake could have benefited from the acidity. Still, it’s so lovely when one’s baking experiments actually work out, and don’t just produce brown hockey pucks!
Experimental Hybrid Banana Bread
2 large bananas, very ripe (i.e., waaay past their eating prime)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus two tablespoons all-purpose unbleached white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 9 by 5 inch loaf pan, buttered.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees (note: I actually cooked this at 275 degrees because my oven is so damn hot, but I already know my oven is much warmer than it should be and I don’t have a digital thermometer. In any event, I would check the bread halfway through to make sure it isn’t over-browning, and possibly adjust your oven temperature accordingly). Butter a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan and set aside.
In a small bowl, mash up your bananas until they form a not-too-lumpy paste. If you don’t like splashing around, then mix your two eggs and vanilla together in another bowl until they are combined and then add to the bananas. Or you could do what I did and just throw all of them together and stir it up until it becomes an egg-y, banana-y, vanilla-y not-too-lumpy paste.
In a large bowl (if you are using a hand mixer), or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the dry ingredients. Either whisk or mix on low for 30 seconds or so to blend. Add the butter and 1/3 of the banana mixture to the bowl and mix on medium speed until blended. Mix for 1 and 1/2 minutes on high speed, which, according to Rose, will help aerate the batter and form the cake’s structure. Then add the remaining banana mixture to the dough in three batches: pour a little in, mix on high for 20 seconds, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and then add the next batch.
When it’s all done, pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 55 minutes, checking halfway through make sure that the cake is not over-browning. The cake will be done when a knife inserted into its center comes out clean.