The other day it occurred to me that I’ve hardly said a peep about the book. Seeing as I spend every day in its (nascent) company, it seems like a funny oversight. It hasn’t been intentional, I swear. We’re just slowly feeling our way, this little book and I. Sometimes I feel so absorbed in it, tweaking recipes and jotting down stories, that it’s hard to know where to start.
To tell you the truth, it was a little disorienting at first to be at home at midday, without the reassuring constraints of a time sheet or colleagues. But it would be awfully rich to mope, I soon realized, about any situation that allows me to stay in my bathrobe until noon. (On occasion, you know, only on occasion.) Most days, I hover between the couch and the kitchen counter, writing or cooking or researching something, and then writing some more. In the past week, I’ve written essays about roasted tomatoes and eggs. I developed a soup and a pasta dish and tested each twice, as well as a cake, which will soon undergo its fourth – and sweet lord, please let it be final – session of test-and-tweak. The other night, our friend Sam came for dinner. Watching me swirl a pan of caramel, he asked teasingly if I’d worked up any sort of plan, exercise-wise, to combat the ill effects of recipe testing and tasting. Sure, I said. The plan is to keep a pack of hungry friends nipping at my heels at all times, and to have plenty of loud, raucous dinner parties. I feel good about the plan.
So far, things are going pretty well, although I did eat the better part of a loaf of banana bread last weekend. What’s worse is that it wasn’t even for the book.
The book will have a banana bread, of course – no work of mine will be without a banana baked something – but Banana Bread Week is long over. It was two weeks ago, not last weekend. It’s done. I was after an improved version of this old favorite, a banana bread with chocolate and crystallized ginger. So I read; I compared; and I baked some loaves. Then I called our friends Olaiya and John, and one night, we held a taste-off. A winner was declared, and the recipe has since moved firmly into the hands of a few kind souls who have offered their services as recipe testers. All told, this means that I should no longer be baking banana bread. Where bananas are concerned, I should strap on a pair of blinders, like those horses that pull carriages in Central Park. I should not do what I did last Friday, which was to bake another one.
I think my belly is exerting some sort of force field for banana bread. Recipes come to me, entirely without my trying. For example, when Brandon and I were in Portland for Valentine’s Day, we stopped into Powell’s – after Pearl Bakery, of course – and came away with a lovely (on sale!) book called HomeBaking, by that food-writing duo of dreams, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Between its covers lie about a million recipes, all sorts of savories and sweet things, loaves and cakes and buns galore. But the recipe that caught my eye was – oh Molly, you are predictable – a banana bread with coconut and a splash of dark rum.
I made it last Friday, cursing myself the whole way. And the long and short of it is this: it’s delicious. I thank my lucky force field. Aside from my own little heartthrob of a recipe – which is, anyway, a wholly different animal from this one – it’s my new standby.
I was initially skeptical. As you will note, this recipe has no eggs, which struck me as odd. But I decided not to second-guess: it might not work, I figured, but that might be for the best. But work it did, and brilliantly, hooo boy, baking up into a pretty little loaf with a moist, compact crumb. As banana breads go, this one is more bread-like and less cakey than some, and that works wondrously to its advantage. It’s subtle – not rich or cloying – and its soft, sturdy crumb gets a bit of toothsome interest from a handful of shredded coconut. This last also lends a faint, nutty flavor that, along with the aforementioned rum, makes for a very complex, sophisticated sweet. Even the crust is special, with a crunchy, nubbly top that crackles with demerara sugar. If banana bread, as a general category, is the ultimate in Americana, this particular loaf sits at the edge of the map, on one of those exotic tropical territories where rum is de rigueur. I think you’ll agree that right about now, that sounds like very good place to be.
But the best part is that a slice or two, along with a cup of tea, makes for one heck of a breakfast. That means there’s good reason to bake another loaf – we have to eat breakfast, people! – even though, by all accounts, I really, really shouldn’t.
Adapted from HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition around the World, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
I have one word for you: demerara. This bread is lovely in its own right, but it owes a good deal of its charm to this very special sugar. Demerara has large, golden grains that sparkle in the light, and sprinkled on top of this banana-moistened batter, it yields a crisp, sweetly craggy crust that steals the show – and that stays crunchy on the second day, even! You can buy demerara sugar online from any number of sources, or look for it in your local gourmet store. I found mine at an upscale market nearby, and I think Whole Foods also carries it. Either way, buy it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to sprinkle it all over the place.
About 3 large, overripe bananas
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/8 tsp distilled white vinegar
1 ½ Tbsp. dark rum
½ cup dried shredded unsweetened coconut
1 Tbsp. demerara or dark brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a standard-size loaf pan.
In a blender or food processor, purée the bananas. Measure out 1 ½ cups of purée. [If you have more than that, try stirring the excess into some plain yogurt. It’s delicious.] Set the purée aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vinegar and rum, and beat to mix well. Add the banana purée and the flour mixture alternately, about 1 cup at a time, beginning with the banana and beating to just incorporate. Use a spatula to fold in any flour that has not been absorbed, and stir in the coconut. Do not overmix.
Scrape the batter – it will be thick – into the prepared pan. Smooth the top, and sprinkle evenly with the demerara sugar. Bake for 50-65 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for about 20 minutes; then turn the loaf out of the pan and allow it to cool completely.
This loaf will keep, sealed airtight, for three to four days, although it is best, I think, on the second day.
Note: You can use frozen bananas here too, and with beautiful results. Whenever I have overripe bananas sitting on my counter, I throw them – skin and all – into the freezer for safekeeping. When I want to bake with them, I pull them out a few hours before, put them in a wide, shallow bowl, and let them thaw. When they have softened fully, I tear open the skin and let the soft, slippery flesh spill out. Be sure to save any juices that come out with it; they’re very flavorful and can be puréed along with the flesh.