My favourite meals are always the ones I feel I've earned. I don't generally like admitting to this, because the notion of 'earning' one's meals is often associated with pretty uncool food-related neuroses, and just generally isn't very socially acceptable. I'd hate you to think that I'm not the kind of person who gets anything less than the utmost joy out of food and eating. Obviously, if you know me at all you'll realise that food not only brings me joy, but it is basically the life force around which my universe revolves. Food brings excitement to my otherwise mediocre days. The act of sitting down three times a day to consume it is always a pleasure.
However, there are definitely certain circumstances under which I enjoy food a little more than usual.
Breakfast, for example, I find most enjoyable when consumed after I've made the gargantuan effort to get out of bed, don my swimming costume and head straight to the pool. This is best done seconds after waking, before my brain has time to fully register the madness of what I'm doing, and the fact that any sane person would be snuggling groggily under the covers, attempting to prolong that wonderful feeling of sleepy laziness before having to get up and be productive. I don't manage it as often as I'd like, to be honest, because I am not superhuman, but when I do occasionally find it in me to swim 1.5km straight after waking, the wonder of breakfast is multiplied tenfold.
There are hazards, admittedly. I often tend to eat twice as much for breakfast as I normally would if I've been swimming beforehand. There seems to be this giant bottomless pit of negative calories inside my stomach that requires a truly shocking amount of porridge/muesli/toast to bring it back to normal.
In fact, I generally have a bit of an obsession with exercising before eating. The food just tastes so much better if you're conceiving of it as not just food but fuel, as battery-recharging goodness that can be wolfed down without guilt or self-loathing. This is probably why some of my favourite meals have been those consumed while skiing. I remember doffing my ski gloves last winter to tuck into a giant crepe bursting with cheese, ham, and a quivering, just-cooked egg. I can still practically taste it, and the memory fills me with joy. There's something about this sport that seems to make it OK to consume vast, vast quantities of carbohydrates and fat without any second thoughts whatsoever.
Oh, I know what it is. It's the hunger brought on by the sheer terror of plummeting down a mountain with wooden planks strapped to your feet. Whets the appetite somewhat.
This notion of earning food doesn't always have to be exercise related, though. A few weeks ago I fainted while having one of those super-simple pin-prick blood tests. Properly passed out on the poor guy who was doing it. I felt horrendous afterwards, even once the blood had returned to my face and my lips stopped being the same colour as my skin. That was creepy. But oddly fascinating; I've never looked at myself in the mirror straight after fainting before. Anyway, I staggered home (deciding, quite wisely I think, not to cycle on the very busy road home) and the first thing I did was to cut myself a thick slab of the lemon drizzle cake I'd made for my mum earlier that week. I hadn't eaten any of it as I knew how much butter and sugar went into it, and was attempting not to be fat. But after that traumatic episode, all concerns about my waistline went out of the window. I had two pieces.
I told myself I needed it, anyway, to restore my blood sugar. Right?
Stress and sheer exhaustion are other factors that bring on this misguided feeling that I've 'earned' highly calorific foodstuffs. Last week I commuted to London to teach an English Literature summer school. It's great fun, but getting up at six every morning, cycling frantically to the station, sitting on the train for an hour, walking to school then teaching at a frenetic pace for five hours before repeating the commute in reverse definitely takes its toll. The most annoying thing is that after finishing a day's teaching I'm always really alert and buzzing (you kind of have to be, to keep up with a class of fourteen kids who at times seem to be cleverer than you), but by the time I've sat on the train home for an hour I feel like collapsing on the station platform.
This feeling gave rise to this banana pudding.
It's based on a recipe from one of my favourite dessert blogs, Pastry Studio. There it's termed 'Banana Sauce Cake', but in my eyes it's more of a pudding. The butterscotch element arises from the liberal use of dark sugar and brown butter, which lends it a gorgeous toffee-esque flavour.
I made this in part to use up a load of wrinkled black bananas which I couldn't bear to freeze. I normally peel and freeze them to use later in banana bread, but my freezer is already packed with them so I felt guilty about using up more space. Perhaps it's ridiculous that I couldn't just throw them out, as bananas cost about 10p each, but I loathe food waste. Seriously. If even the slightest morsel of food ever needs throwing away, I have to get someone else to do it. I physically can't bring myself to be the tipper of food into the voracious, gaping mouth of the kitchen bin.
The bottom of the pudding is a layer of sliced bananas. The spongey part is made rich, dark and delicious by using brown butter. For this you heat butter until it separates into white solids and yellow liquid, and then the liquid gradually turns golden, flecked with nutty dark bits that lend it this incredible warm, toasty, hazelnut taste (hence its French name, beurre noisette) and aroma. It's worth trying even if you don't intend to use it in a recipe: just sit and inhale the toasty butter. I guarantee it will make the world seem a better place.
To this is added lots of dark sugar, for a caramel colour and flavour, more banana, mashed, plus flour, egg, vanilla, milk, and other general cakey ingredients. You end up with a loose, golden batter, which you spoon over the sliced bananas.
But then magic happens. Seriously, it's a bit mad. You mix together a boiling, bubbling mixture of butter, water, molasses sugar (super-dark sugar that smells like coffee and Christmas and spices) and treacle, adding warm cinnamon and nutmeg (the banana's favourite flavours). You then pour this over the batter in the tin, being careful not to disturb it, then put the whole lot in the oven to bake.
Somehow, during baking, the liquid mixture soaks through the crumb of the sponge to saturate the cake at the bottom, pooling in luscious, toffee-scented puddles around the bananas and soaking into the pudding. It's like one of those self-saucing puddings. The top bakes to a chewy crunchiness, while the underside remains gooey, buttery, caramelly, and warm with the flavour of bananas, sugar and spice.
This was pretty much everything my exhausted (physically and mentally), world-weary self could have hoped for. It was rich, spongey, cakey, dense, sticky, gooey, buttery, sugary. Reminiscent of sticky toffee pudding in appearance and texture, only with more of a banana flavour. In future I might experiment with adding some dates and pecan nuts to the batter too, as I feel they could only improve it.
It's not a dainty pudding. It's not pretty. It's not really the most healthy, although there's actually very little butter in it, just rather a lot of sugar. But it's unrefined sugar, so that goes some way to making it better in my book. But the gist is that this is a rustic, hearty, proper pudding. It begs to be eaten with vanilla ice cream, which works so well with the hot toffee sauce and the sticky sponge that the recollection almost makes me want to weep with joy.
I most definitely, definitely earned this.
Although I probably didn't earn all three helpings that found their way into my mouth.
Banana butterscotch pudding (serves 4-6):
3 very ripe bananas
150g plain flour
100g light/dark brown sugar
1 3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
60g molasses sugar (or dark brown sugar if you can't find this)
1 tbsp black treacle
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (or more if, like me, you're a nutmeg fiend)
Brown the butter. To do this, heat it over a medium heat in a small saucepan (one with a light-coloured interior is best, so you can see the butter changing colour), swirling occasionally, until the white solids separate out and the liquid starts to become golden with small brown flecks in it. (There's a nice 'how to' guide here). Remove from the heat.
Lightly grease an 8x8in/20x20cm square cake tin. Slice two of the bananas and arrange evenly over the bottom of the tin. Pre-heat the oven to 170C.
Mix together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, bicarb and salt in a small bowl. In another larger bowl, beat together the egg, milk and vanilla, then add the third banana and mash into the mixture using a fork. Add the browned butter to this and mix well. Fold in the flour mixture until you have an even batter with no white bits of flour remaining, then pour this over the bananas in the cake tin.
For the sauce, put the water, molasses sugar, treacle, butter, cinnamon and nutmeg in a small saucepan and bring to the boil, whisking to mix it all together. Leave to cool for a minute or so, then pour this evenly over the cake batter. Don't worry if it looks like it's curdling the mixture a little. Immediately put the cake in the oven, trying not to disturb the liquid on top too much.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden and chewy on top and liquid underneath. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.