Like so many others who love the warmth of the stove, I once thought that I wanted to be a chef. One of my half-brothers had gone to cooking school, so it seemed only natural. Never mind the fact that said half-brother does the least amount of cooking of anyone in our family; chefdom was clearly in my blood. To test my reasoning, I took an internship one summer at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, the city’s oldest, most well-known vegetarian restaurant and the birthplace of several celebrated cookbooks. I knew next to nothing about restaurant kitchens, much less that I would be told to “fire” this or that, slice onions as “thin as an angel’s eyelash,” or distinguish among three different types of Champagne vinegar. Suffice it to say that though I was only there two days a week for a month or two, I learned more than I’d ever expected—namely, that a commercial kitchen wasn’t for me. I found that I missed the very thing that had drawn me to the stove in the first place: the human element of cooking and eating, the direct link between preparing food and sharing it, face to face, with people I care about. It didn’t feel right to plate a dish and watch it disappear into the faceless unknown with a waiter whose name I couldn’t remember. Forget this back-of-the-house business; I wanted my house, where the dining room and the kitchen were one.
That said, however, I did come away from Greens with one promising discovery: a mysterious thing called pastry arts. My favorite task at Greens had been plating desserts, from individual ginger crunch cakes with seasonal fruit to homemade ice creams, and I began to wonder if life as a pastry chef wouldn’t suit me pretty well. It somehow seemed gentler, more touchy-feely, and, well, sweeter—that is, until I realized that it would entail a bit more hardcore complexity than I’d bargained for. My dessert aesthetic was rustic comfort, not chocolate spray guns and sugar sculptures. Though spun-sugar cages are very pretty, I’d probably have to be locked up in one before I’d enjoy making them. What’s more, there was the specter of repetition: I worried that making the same items over and over, day in and day out, would destroy any sense of adventure or enjoyment I had. So with no small amount of disappointment, I left my chef plans, pastry and otherwise, for someone with more bravery and stamina, and instead here I am, writing my way around the kitchen.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when last week I found myself going downright pastry-artsy on banana cakes. Talk about repetition: I baked three of the things—each a slight variation on the other—within the span of four days. The frenzy was sparked by a dinner party Friday night, to which I’d brought an impromptu, seemingly simple creation: a single-layer banana cake with a chocolate ganache glaze. Though delicious, it was dense and a bit rubbery, more bread than cake. I was outraged. I had gorgeous photos of the thing,
So I put aside my usual evening plans—watching old episodes of Sex and the City and sobbing whenever something perfect happens; you see, my nights generally are not too saucy—and instead I baked banana cakes until I got one right. I’m no pastry chef, but I tweaked and tasted, from all-purpose to cake flour, buttermilk to sour cream, baking powder to soda, recipe to recipe. At one point, I even contemplated getting a chocolate spray gun for further ammunition. And when, with much rejoicing, I finally found the ultimate cake, I quite nearly made a spun-sugar cage to crown my humble masterpiece. I almost reconsidered cooking school. But instead, I decided to cut to the chase and just hurry up and start sharing.
This cake is remarkably moist and banana-y, but unlike banana breads, it has a light, fine crumb. Dusted with powdered sugar, it might well be the ultimate in comfort food, but the dark chocolate ganache lends a bit of sophistication.
For the cake:
2 cups sifted cake flour
¾ cup plus 2 Tbs sugar (I used fine-grained unrefined cane sugar, which worked fine)
1 tsp baking soda
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 large ripe bananas (about 225 grams, peeled)
½ cup sour cream (not low- or non-fat)
2 large eggs
1 ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
10 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the ganache:
¾ cup heavy cream
8 ounces best-quality semisweet chocolate (I used El Rey 58%), finely chopped
1 Tbs rum
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9-inch round springform pan with cooking spray, line the base with a round of parchment paper, and spray the parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In a food processor, purée the banana and sour cream until completely smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla, and process briefly to combine. The puréed mixture will be light yellow and quite loose.
Add the softened butter and about ½ of the puréed mixture to the dry ingredients in the bowl. Beat to combine on low speed; then increase the speed and beat for about 90 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and add the rest of the purée, beating to combine well. The batter will be light tan in color and should be smooth and creamy.
Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and dry. Remove the cake from the oven, let cool for 10 minutes, and then remove the other rim of the pan. Invert the cake onto a wire rack, and carefully remove the base of the pan and the parchment paper. Allow the cake to cool completely.
When it is cool, begin the ganache. Put the chocolate in a medium mixing bowl. Bring the heavy cream to a near boil in small saucepan. When it is steaming well, remove it from the heat, and pour it over the chocolate in the bowl. Stir or whisk until most of the chocolate is melted; then cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir or whisk gently until the mixture is completely smooth. Stir in the rum. Let the ganache stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until it cools to 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the cooled cake and its wire rack onto a rimmed baking sheet, and slowly pour the ganache over the cake, using an icing spatula or long, flat knife to spread and smooth it across the top and down the sides. [Scrape excess ganache off of the baking sheet for reusing, if you like. You will likely only need to use about 1/3 of the ganache for one cake; the rest will keep in the refrigerator for a week, or frozen for up to 3 months. Soften or melt before using.] Allow the cake to sit at room temperature for at least a half hour before serving.