Question 1. Looking at the above photo, what do you see?
a) Four bananas.
b) The kitchen bin's next mouthful.
c) A treasure trove of glittering gastronomic potential just waiting to be exploited.
If you answered c), you and I are one of a kind (this may or may not be a good thing, depending on your opinion of me). If you answered a) or b), shame on you - read on and let me change your mind.
A couple of years ago, I too would have thrown out those bananas. I'm very fussy about bananas: they have to be at the perfect point of ripeness for me to enjoy them, which for me is when they still have a slight green tinge - at this point they are quite firm and sweet, without that earthy banana flavour you get from riper specimens. Any hint of a black speckle on the skin, and I will treat the banana with caution. It will be chopped up and stirred into my muesli or porridge for breakfast, or I might mash it up and make banana pancakes, but it goes nowhere near my mouth unadulterated. Just so we're clear on that.
However, a couple of years ago I made my first ever banana bread. I've adapted the original recipe a few times since (for example, a coconut and cardamom version, or a version with chocolate chips, or a version with blueberries), but generally, when I see bananas in my fruit bowl starting to go past their best, I rejoice in the anticipation of warm, gooey, oven-fresh banana bread. The key is to use shockingly ripe bananas - if they're starting to ooze out of their black skins, and the action of peeling and mashing them makes you want to retch slightly, they're perfect. Even if they're a bit mouldy, once they're baked you won't even notice. As bananas ripen, they gain much more banana flavour and also sweetness. Make banana bread with green bananas and I doubt it would work at all: you need the squishy ripeness to bind the bread ingredients together, and the flavour is only there once they're starting to go black. I sometimes, if I know I won't have time to bake before the bananas actually have to go in the bin, peel ripe bananas and freeze them. That way you can defrost and mash them whenever you feel like baking with them. They're also good in smoothies.
I decided to experiment with this batch of bananas. I thought I'd try making my existing recipe even healthier, by cutting out the fat completely (I normally use about 50g of butter), using spelt flour instead of wheat flour, and adding in lots of delicious and nutritious things like nuts and dried fruit. The result is so exquisite that you'd never guess it was fat free and good for you. You could even make it free of added sugar by using honey instead of the dark brown sugar. I think the deliciousness is all down to those squishy bananas, which lend the bread a wonderful moistness meaning you don't need any butter, nor much sugar, because they're so sweet. Add to that the crunch of walnuts, the squash of a raisin or piece of dried apricot, the nuttiness of spelt flour, the sweetness and treacley taste of dark brown sugar, and the warm notes of mixed spice and cinnamon, and you have perfection. The outside forms a crust and turns crunchy, while the inside stays gooey and sticky and wonderful. The crunch of the walnuts are probably the best bit; they go so well with the sweet banana flavour. Pecans would be great too.
I was a bit worried when I took this out of the oven, because it had done something completely bizarre and risen up enormously on one side, so that it looked rather like it had some kind of tumour. I can only speculate that maybe the baking powder wasn't evenly distributed or something. However, the misshapen nature in no way affected the beautiful eating experience, so all is well. I like to think it's rustic (I find myself saying that a lot to compensate for presentation/visual errors in cooking...).
My favourite thing about this recipe is its versatility: you could add whatever you like - chocolate chips, chopped dates, oats, poppy seeds, desiccated coconut, cardamom, blueberries, raspberries, almonds...the possibilities are almost endless. So many ingredients work well with the comforting flavour of banana - nuts and seeds are definitely a good idea for their textural contrast, but most fruits would go well in the cake too. Chocolate chips, though they might detract from the healthiness, seem to me a very very good idea - imagining the spongy moistness of the cake rippled with molten, oozing chunks of chocolate is making me salivate.
I'm normally sceptical of baking recipes that purport to be super-healthy, but this one is about as close as you can get - I was actually considering eating it for breakfast, and I'm a bit of a health freak when it comes to breakfast. You could spread it with lashings of butter if you don't go in for this fat-free business, though I don't really think it needs it, especially if it's just come out of the oven. The smell of it baking is also one of the best aromas in the world.
Super-healthy banana bread (makes one loaf):
3 very very ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
80g dark muscovado sugar
1 tsp coconut essence (or vanilla)
1 tsp ground mixed spice
300g spelt flour or wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
Zest of a lemon or orange (or both)
100g dried apricots, chopped
3 tbsp raisins
100g walnuts (or pecans or almonds), roughly chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Using an electric or hand whisk, mix together the bananas, eggs, sugar, milk, essence and spices. Add the flour, bicarb, salt and baking powder and mix together to form a loose batter.
Fold in the lemon or orange zest, and the fruit and most of the walnuts. Spoon the batter into a greased, lined loaf tin and sprinkle with the remaining walnuts.
Bake for about 50 minutes.