Monday, 26 November 2012

Spiced banana bread

Sometimes, you just need to go back to basics. This is, of course, true in all areas of life, but I'm primarily talking about the kitchen. Sometimes you just need to. To put the mandolin, potato ricer, apple corer, waffle maker and julienne-slicer back in the cupboard. To leave the ice cream maker in the freezer. To unplug the KitchenAid mixer. To stack up the dariole pudding moulds and tuck them safely into the cupboard along with the bundt cake tin, the individual tart cases, the trifle glasses. To leave the oyster knife in the drawer along with the boning knife, filleting knife and cheese knife. To dispense with the mezzaluna and say goodbye to the sugar thermometer.

Sometimes, you need to realise that what people want to eat is not necessarily the same as what they can see by tuning into Masterchef. You need to realise that while you slave away preparing numerous drizzles and sauces to adorn the plate, they will be getting hungrier and hungrier, and as they squash everything on the plate together with their knife and fork, they are unlikely to notice the artful balsamic drizzle here, the tasteful garnish of micro-herbs there. Neatly sliced cuts of meat are made to be accompanied by a pile of mash and vegetables, not by three different kinds of puree, no matter how delightfully colour-contrasting they are or how subtly different in texture.

You need to realise that, although this new recipe of yours may showcase some exotic and unusual ingredient, people are unlikely to care as much as you do. Yes, there may be kumquats with the pork belly, but what is wrong with old-fashioned apple sauce? There may be basil ice cream with the strawberry tart, but...y'know...vanilla can be really nice. A stew with polenta? It may be oozing Italian sophistication, but it ain't mash.

That sourdough, that you spent months maturing and days baking? To you it may have the perfect nuanced flavour, so much better than anything you can buy for the simple reason that you nurtured it and perfected it, but no one else is likely to pick up on that. To them, it will taste exactly the same as something you could pick up from a baker. Save that luscious tangy crumb for yourself, and buy a loaf instead for dinner.

I have to remind myself of all of this sometimes. It's difficult to remember that not everyone takes cooking as seriously as I do, that not everyone will care as much as I do, and appreciate the effort and (I like to think) ingenuity that goes into conceiving and preparing a dish. I've come to realise that actually, what really matters is that people sit around the table and have a good time with something they enjoy eating. Sometimes, it's OK to rustle up a simple beef and ale stew, or fish pie, or pasta. It's more than OK; it's better. There are times when simplicity and (relative) ease can make a meal like nothing else.

This is, I think, at its most applicable when it comes to the realm of dessert. To me, there is simply no point faffing about making numerous different kinds of compotes, jellies, ganaches, tuiles, sugar cages and mousses in order to construct a dessert more akin to a piece of modern art than the final course of a meal. While such things are easy on the eye, they're tiresome and a faff to eat, with a million and one different components to analyse with your tastebuds before you can actually enjoy the thing.

I'm not sure if anyone, honestly, would take that sort of dessert over something hearty and home baked.

This banana bread, for me, is a perfect example of the beauty of simplicity. Even more so because it actually arose out of an attempt to be too clever. I was experimenting with a rhubarb and cardamom cake the other day, involving alternate layers of cake batter and rhubarb compote. All seemed well when I took its gloriously risen form out of the oven and left it to cool. When I came to slice the thing, however, it was a disaster: the cake mixture hadn't cooked at all, sodden and weighed down by the sticky, wet rhubarb compote. It was doughy, stodgy and inedible. 

I've never really had a baking failure before. Generally my instinct, developed through years of practice, is sharp enough to know when something is going to work or not. This time, though, something was clearly off. I'll put it down to what was a very stressful week, coupled with the general stress of starting a totally new life in a totally new city. To me, it was a sign that I needed to slow down a bit, to stop trying to be too clever. To go back to basics.

This banana bread never fails me. It is the epitome of a trustworthy, reliable recipe. You will probably always have the ingredients for it available in your kitchen already - especially if, like me, you peel overripe bananas and freeze them for such an occasion. I make it every time I need a good, proper, hearty cake. It is moist, squidgy, with a delicious caramel aroma from the baked bananas. It develops a crunchy crust on the top, scattered with chunks of toasted almonds, while the inside stays gloriously soft and cakey. 

This time, I decided to enhance the basic recipe a little with some spices, from my treasure trove kindly donated by JustIngredients. I bashed open some jade-green cardamom pods, ground the seeds into a fragrant powder, then added cinnamon and ginger. This infused the banana batter with a deliciously warm, comforting aroma - cardamom especially goes very well with bananas, with its citrussy fragrance balancing the caramel flavour well. 

Going back to basics tastes delicious. It makes the kitchen smell warm, sugary and buttery as it cooks. It looks rustic, hearty, promising warm flavours and a tender crumb. It slices into wobbly, steaming pieces demanding to be devoured before they have properly cooled. But it's also still delicious the next day with a slick of soft butter. The addition of warming spices lifts the whole thing to a delicious new level; it is the ultimate comfort cake.

Spiced banana bread (makes one loaf):

100g self-raising flour
80g wholemeal flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
50g cold butter
50g dark brown sugar
6 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
60ml milk
2 very ripe bananas, mashed
2-3 tbsp flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a loaf tin.

Mix together the flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the brown sugar. 

Using a pestle and mortar, bash the cardamom pods and remove the black seeds. Grind the seeds to a fine powder. Add to the flour and butter mixture along with the cinnamon and ginger. 

In a smaller bowl, mash together the bananas and milk. Add this to the flour mixture and mix together until you have a thick batter.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and scatter over the flaked almonds. Bake for 40 minutes until golden and firm, and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

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  1. A baking failure is so disappointing! This is just the thing to get your groove back.

  2. Definitely - it's made me wonder why I ever try and do things more complicated!

  3. I do love a bit of fancy food every so often but you're right, it's often the simplest things that keep us coming back for more. This looks like the very best kind of home baking and can imagine it made your kitchen smell utterly wonderful. Yum.

  4. I totally agree - there is a time and place for everything and, especially with company, simpler is often better. As much as I like to try out new dishes and share new favourites with friends & family, when we all manage to get around the same table once in a while it i actually quite nice to enjoy that time together rather than being exhausted from all the ingredient sourcing, prep work, cooking and running back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room to keep an eye on the next course yet still partake in the conversation.

    I have a banana & cardamom loaf on my list for the next bunch of overripe bananas and I like the additional spices you used as well.

    PS: I have decided baking 'failures' don't exist, it is all 'recipe development' ;-)


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