There are some things that, in my mind, have zero place in tea. Just like some people have an entirely irrational aversion to raisins in muesli, or olives in salad, I absolutely refuse to entertain certain rogue ingredients in my morning (/afternoon/evening) brew. Liquorice is the main culprit here: I can detect its sickly-sweet aroma simply from the vapour of the tea before it even touches my lips. Not that I’d let it, because then there’s a disgusting syrupy aftertaste that ruins the entire point of a cup of tea, which is to be bracing and relaxing all at the same time. It’s not candy, or medicine.Read More
I debated long and hard over what to call these. When I put a picture of them up on instagram the other day, my finger hovered over the keyboard as I found myself weighing up the merits of ‘cinnamon rolls’ versus ‘cinnamon buns’. Were I actually Danish, rather than simply pretending by living in Denmark, being relatively tall, cycling everywhere and knowing how to say ‘I’m dog-hungry, give me a big pastry now’ in Danish, I would simply call them kanelsnegler (cinnamon snails) and be done with it, but I’m not so there was pause for thought. (And even this appears to be hotly contested in Denmark, because alongside the kanelsnegl there also exist the kanelsnurre and even the kanelting, literally ‘cinnamon thing’, which definitely suggests someone somewhere is sick of the entire debate).Read More
Walking into a Japanese bakery, you might be forgiven for thinking you are somewhere in the heart of Paris. Pastries, loaves and rolls are piled high and plentiful, and you are cosseted by the sumptuous aromas of warm dough and hot sugar. But look a little more closely, and you may start to reconsider. The cheese has a slightly odd, plasticky sheen. What you thought were chocolate chips appear, upon closer inspection, to be red beans, the kind you might normally expect to find in your chilli con carne. And, of course, much of the bread is green.Read More
Thick, fluffy, stacked American pancakes are all very well and good, as are delicate, lacy, paper-thin French crepes, but sometimes you want something in between. I’m sure a Frenchman would be horrified at the thick, flat pancakes I’m showcasing here – there’s nothing remotely delicate or refined about them – but I love the texture of a thicker, squidgier crepe-style pancake, perfect for folding around a delicious filling. They’re more satisfying, and easier to make, than a true crepe, and stand up to an assertive application of syrup, honey, compote, or whatever you choose to throw at them. I first tried pancakes like these in south-east Asia, and this recipe is an homage to the many glorious breakfasts I ate in Bali, Vietnam and Thailand.Read More
I was prepared to like the Biltmore Bar & Grill before I tasted the food. Their upstairs dining area is a wonderful indoor garden, a lovely sprawling array of potted plants, small trees and dark foliage. While I love dining al fresco at home, the pleasure of sipping wine and eating a meal surrounded by blooming flora is always slightly undermined by the fact that all I can think about is how much needs weeding, or pruning, or repotting, or how much the lawn needs mowing, or how much that hedge really needs to come down, or how the apple tree is any minute now going to start hurling its fruit at the garden with a vengeance and that no amount of apple crumbles will even begin to deal with its prolific bounty…you see how it goes. At the Biltmore’s aptly-named ‘Garden Grill’, no such worries could intrude upon my eating experience. Instead, I got to enjoy the somewhat eclectic décor (there are two big white sculptures of deer wearing sunglasses in front of a huge, wall-length drinks cabinet, a curtain of rushing water behind the bar and chairs and sofas upholstered in plush velour) without worry, preferably while taking it in over a cocktail from the extensive menu – the Bellinis are lovely, as is the bourbon-based ‘Old Fashioned’.Read More
Some of my favourite recipes are those that involve a slightly risky frisson of surprise. Those ‘no-peeking’ dishes where, perhaps worryingly, you won’t know how they’ve turned out until the cooking is over and the moment of revelation is at hand. A stew that’s been simmering and melding beautifully under a lid in the oven for a few hours, for example. What went in as lumps of meat and veg suspended in a watery broth emerges – hopefully – as a dark, glossy and unctuous mass of slippery vegetables and tender chunks of meat, deeply rich and savoury.Read More
While I usually deplore the ‘food as fuel’ mentality, the mindless consumption of edible goods simply as an aid to increased productivity regardless of their nature, I have to say that I do sometimes treat the poor banana with such an attitude. Wolfed down between coming home from work and heading to the gym, practically inhaled as a pre-swim morning snack or gulped greedily every time I feel that familiar blood sugar slump, I rarely pay much attention to this humble fruit, carelessly exploiting it for its filling, sugar-rich, workout-boosting nature and ease of eating.Read More
The moments you remember most fondly from travelling are often not quite those you’d expect to recall or to take such a place in your heart. I have many wonderful memories from my recent trip to south east Asia: spotting an orang utan in the wild in the heart of the Borneo jungle; immersing myself in the sights, sounds and scents of one of Penang’s biggest hawker markets; snorkelling in turquoise waters off the coast of Sabah; walking through lush rice terraces in Java surrounded by papaya trees. And yet one of the moments I remember best, and that fills me most with a tranquil sense of happiness, is one that is comparatively trivial.Read More
I've recently discovered the joy that is the blondie. Before that, my 'special occasion' baking repertoire was firmly dominated by the brownie. Birthdays, Christmases, thank yous, thinking of yous, I love yous, et cetera - there are few occasions that don't benefit from a small foil-wrapped bundle of brownies, slightly still warm and gooey from the oven. Since I made these salted caramel and cacao nib brownies a few months ago, they've been my go-to recipe for any occasion that demands ridiculously indulgent sugar-butter-chocolate goodness.
Brownies seem to be the kind of thing people don't really make at home, perhaps eating them only in restaurants. This is due at least in part, I suspect, to the fact that once you've seen just how much butter and sugar go into them, you can't bear to eat the homemade variety - at least in a restaurant you can remain in blissful denial. Regardless, they've always gone down a treat, and I can never resist nibbling the bits left in the tin when I've made a batch for someone else.
However, a couple of months ago I stumbled across a raspberry and white chocolate blondie recipe online. I forget why I had a need to make blondies, but I think they were for a friend. I had immense fun browning a pan of butter, stirring in shards of glossy white chocolate, folding in brown sugar, eggs and raspberries, and baking the lot to golden perfection. They were ridiculously delicious, the kind of delicious that only comes from pairing toasty brown butter with caramel-sweet white chocolate and lifting the lot with the tang of juicy raspberries. (You can find my tweaked recipe - I added pistachios - here).
Blondies have a different type of allure to brownies. Where brownies are dark, decadent and mysterious, rich and indulgent-looking, often almost bittersweet with dark cocoa, blondies are the other end of the spectrum. They have none of that mystique, instead appearing more homely and cakey. They are often more cake-like in texture, too, with less of that smooth truffley mouthfeel you get from a good gooey brownie. Importantly, they have gorgeous notes of butter and caramel from the inclusion of white chocolate; the butter flavour of an ordinary brownie tends to get hidden by chocolate, which dominates and overwhelms (often in a good way, of course).
I've never really cooked with white chocolate until I jumped on the blondie bandwagon. I don't really eat it, finding it a bit overly sweet and a tad greasy. But cooked and melted, something magic happens to white chocolate. It has the most irresistible moreish sweetness, possessing a delightful gooey, slightly grainy texture, with notes of butterscotch and caramel. I love its texture and flavour, especially combined with brown butter.
A lot of people who tried this recipe looked nonplussed when I listed one of its key components as brown butter. Brown butter is basically what happens when you heat butter so that the milk solids separate out from the fat and brown (almost burn), resulting in the most incredible toasty, biscuity aroma. You end up with a dark golden liquid, flecked with deliciously aromatic toasted nuggets.
Once you start browning butter for recipes, it's quite hard to stop - why would you not go that extra mile and add delicious digestive-biscuit-esque flavour to your baked goods?
Inspired by recent blondie baking adventures, and by this recent recipe on one of my favourite baking blogs, I decided to have a go at making a sort of cross between banana bread and blondies. Banana bread because most of the moisture is provided by mashed ripe bananas and a little milk, rather than loads of butter; blondies because the resulting baked good is studded with gooey chunks of sweet white chocolate and enriched with a little browned butter. I used muscovado sugar for its delicious butterscotch flavour, and decided to sprinkle some flaked coconut on top, because why not? They are enriched with a little vanilla, and I used spelt flour for a lovely nutty flavour to accompany the coconut.
White chocolate, brown butter, caramel-scented sugar, sweet bananas, and nutty coconut. You can see why this made sense in my head. They were always going to be good.
If you're a fan of banana bread, you'll love these. Banana bread but in handy sliceable squares, they have a fabulous combination of decadent flavours and textures. A subtle biscuity note from the brown butter; the sweet perfume of ripe bananas; a hint of vanilla; the caramel notes of brown sugars; gooey chunks of sweet white chocolate; and finally, the irresistible crunch and flavour of toasted coconut. They're not quite as rich and gooey as sickly sweet blondies, which I think is definitely a good thing.
They're everything a baked good should be, just a little bit more special.
Banana blondies with white chocolate and toasted coconut (makes 16):
- 60g unsalted butter
- 75g light muscovado sugar
- 50g dark muscovado sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 ripe bananas
- 2 tbsp whole milk
- 1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
- A generous pinch of salt
- 150g spelt flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 100g white chocolate chips/chopped white chocolate
- A small handful of flaked coconut
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line an 8-inch square cake tin.
In a wide saucepan, heat the butter over a medium heat until the white solids separate from the yellow liquid. Keep it on the heat, swirling it round the pan occasionally, until brown flecks start to form in the butter and it smells biscuity (for an excellent tutorial on browning butter, see here). Set aside to cool.
Using an electric whisk, beat the sugars with the egg until pale and creamy. In a separate bowl, mash the bananas with the milk, vanilla and salt. Mix these into the eggs and sugar along with the browned butter. Sift in the flour and baking powder, and mix gently to incorporate. Finally, fold in the white chocolate.
Pour into the prepared tin, then scatter over the coconut. Bake for 25 minutes, until firm and golden (lower the heat slightly if the coconut starts to burn). Leave to cool, then enjoy.
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.
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.
I was recently sent an exciting new Nescafe Dolce Gusto Genio coffee machine to try out, and asked to create a recipe based around coffee - either something featuring coffee as an ingredient, or something that would be good with a cup of coffee. Naturally, I went all out and did both.
When I consulted my flavour thesaurus for ideas, a surprising number of ingredients cropped up that apparently pair well with coffee, the most surprising being beef (the combination of red meat and coffee is recommended as a dinner party dish for 'your most health-conscious friends'). I'd have thought that coffee would be a rather difficult ingredient to work with, because it is so bitter and complex in itself. Apart from the obvious - chocolate, cream, milk - I wasn't sure of any coffee pairings that would work. However, given its strong bitterness, coffee works quite well with ingredients that are naturally rich - nuts, for example, and flavoursome spices like cardamom. It's therefore a great base flavour for all sorts of decadent sweet concoctions; this is just one example.
My eye landed upon bananas in the flavour thesaurus. I noticed the twenty bananas sitting in my fruit bowl, and the answer to my coffee conundrum was obvious.
Well, obvious in so far as it needed to be a coffee cake featuring bananas. I've wanted to make a banana upside-down cake ever since I saw one of the contestants on the Great British Bake Off make an insanely delicious-looking banana tarte tatin, all gooey and dripping with caramelly goodness.
That was a particularly challenging episode, incidentally, to watch while hungry. Pastry, fruit and caramel? A trio of dreams.
While I cook a lot with bananas (bread, pancakes, porridge...), they are always mashed up. I've never baked or cooked them still in intact pieces, and something about the way they had softened and turned sticky and golden on that tarte tatin made me deeply eager to try it. I've never done that thing where you cut holes in a banana in its skin, stuff them with chocolate and barbecue it - every time I tell people this they're astonished it wasn't a regular feature of my childhood barbecues. This probably has something to do with the fact that barbecues were a rare feature in my house, because it took my father approximately a million years to get the barbecue to the stage where it was ready for cooking.
Bananas also undergo a rather exciting colour transformation upon heating, turning from pale yellow to a deep red colour; rather like quinces, now that I think about it. If anyone could enlighten me as to why this is, I'd be grateful.
I love the taste of coffee cake - my granny makes an excellent one - and I figured the two would make rather a nice couple. As with most upside-down creations, this requires that the fruit be drenched in a layer of caramel. The addition of coffee to the cake batter ensures that the caramel-banana pairing is not too cloying. While you might be sceptical about the combination of coffee and bananas, it's rather delicious - one is gooey and sickly sweet, the other slightly bitter and rich.
It's banoffee, but with coffee instead of toffee. But there's still caramel. So basically you get your banana-sugar hit, but with the addition of caffeine. Definitely a pick-me-up kind of cake.
I made a simple caramel mixture by melting together butter, sugar and cinnamon (bananas and cinnamon are fabulous together, as are coffee and cinnamon, so it just made sense). This was smothered over a layer of banana slices in the cake tin. On top went a simple cake batter made with yoghurt (gives it a lovely moist texture) and enriched with espresso coffee - I got to use the exciting Genio machine, which uses little pre-packaged pods so there isn't any faffing around with loose coffee; even for cappuccino and coffees involving milk, it all comes in a pod, plus you can make both hot and iced coffee, which is pretty clever. For someone like me who doesn't make enough coffee to justify buying a proper manual machine, it's quite handy.
Anyway, there is a little espresso coffee in the cake batter (but you could also use instant coffee mixed with water if you don't have access to espresso). This, along with good old brown sugar, turns it a glorious golden brown colour. It goes over the caramel bananas and bakes, while the caramel bubbles up and permeates the cake mixture, softening the bananas and turning them sweet, sticky and cinnamon-scented.
The result of this unconventional pairing is a fabulously rich, moist, earthy cake sticky with sweet caramel and chunks of gooey banana. The coffee flavour isn't too strong in the sponge (you could add more coffee if you want it stronger) but it gives it a lovely mellow, rounded flavour that works so well with the sticky chunks of banana. There's a delicious breath of cinnamon from the caramel that brings everything together.
Because I know this is important, here's a tip: the edge pieces are the best, where the caramel has run down the sides, so save those for yourself if you make this for a crowd.
While I won't claim that this combination of sugar and caffeine is health food, the sponge itself has very little butter in it (the addition of yoghurt both ups the moisture content and reduces the calories - genius), and the caramel not a huge amount either. You could probably skip the caramel and just sprinkle the tin with a little sugar before adding the bananas, and you'd still have a lovely cake that's not too heavy on the calories, if you're worried about that sort of thing.
It's filling and satisfying - the perfect thing for that mid-afternoon slump, with your cup of tea or coffee. It would also make a great dessert, served warm from the oven with some vanilla ice cream.
Banana caramel and coffee upside-down cake (serves 8-10):
- 50g soft butter
- 130g light brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 tbsp strong espresso coffee (or 1 tbsp instant coffee granules mixed with 1 tbsp boiling water)
- 200ml yoghurt
- Pinch of salt
- For the banana topping:
- 2 bananas
- 40g butter
- 80g light brown sugar
- 1.5 tsp cinnamon
Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Whisk the butter and sugar together using an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and whisk in. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix, then add the coffee, yoghurt and salt, mixing to form a smooth, thick mixture.
Grease an 8x8in square cake tin, or a 20cm round cake tin. Slice the bananas thinly and arrange the slices in a single layer over the bottom of the tin, so they mostly cover it.
Put the 40g butter and 80g sugar in a small saucepan with the cinnamon, and heat until melted together. Pour this evenly over the bananas - you can use a spoon to spread it over them, but be careful not to dislodge the slices.
Pour the cake batter over the bananas and caramel, then bake for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Best served warm.
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):
- 55g butter
- 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 egg
- 120ml milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 240ml water
- 60g molasses sugar (or dark brown sugar if you can't find this)
- 1 tbsp black treacle
- 15g butter
- 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.
Ah, the overripe banana. Has there ever been a foodstuff so divisive? On the one hand, it repulses and horrifies, with its festering, milky innards and dark, wrinkled exterior. On the other, it lends a fabulous moisture and sweet banana fragrance to all sorts of baked goods, improving with flavour the longer it is left to liquefy in its skin.
Maybe not as divisive as some other foods - foie gras, battery chicken, rabbit, and those horrible Chinese dishes that involve eating pieces off the animal while it's still alive - but still a subject of contention, I am sure. I know of many people who simply cannot abide an overripe banana, for whom the thought of peeling back that leathery brown skin to reveal the grisly mush within is tantamount to a nightmare.
My standard response to overripe bananas - and for me, any banana that isn't still tinged with green and firm to the bite is classed as 'overripe', so god help it by the time it starts to show those telltale brown spots - is to bake banana bread, or whip up a fluffy batch of banana and blueberry pancakes. I used to produce the former on an almost weekly basis while at university, inviting all my friends over to partake in the extremely pleasant ritual of a good cup of tea and a steaming slice of moist, gooey, still-warm banana bread. The latter are also delicious; the squished bananas give the pancakes all the moisture they need, with no requirement for surplus butter, meaning you can even claim your whopping mountain of brunch sustenance is healthy.
However, while perusing the baking Bible that is Dan Lepard's latest cookbook, Short and Sweet, I alighted on the recipe for the simply- and alliteratively-titled 'Banana Blondie'..
Perhaps it was the picture that drew me in, managing to perfectly capture what I imagined to be the intense fudgy deliciousness of these golden creations.
Perhaps it was the use of brazil nuts, easily my favourite nut of all time thanks to its irresistible creamy-yet-nutty texture and super-rich flavour.
Perhaps it was the idea of a blondie, a new culinary experience for me and one involving liberal amounts of sweet, vanilla-scented white chocolate, which I rarely cook with but which sounded rather good enriching the hearts of these tender morsels.
Perhaps it was the prospect of another way to use up those overripe bananas.
I think it was probably all of the above, but the latter was the main reason for me donning my apron this morning and whipping up a batch.
'Whipping up' is perhaps the wrong phrase; they are a little bit more fiddly to make than your average blondie or brownie. They require making a caramel (which always sounds very tricky and technical, but in fact involves nothing more taxing than mixing sugar and water, and letting it boil without stirring for a few minutes until it turns golden and bubbly), into which you stir your chopped brazil nuts before letting it set to a kind of hard toffee, which you then slice - with an immensely satisfying crunch - into glistening shards before enveloping in the golden batter.
The batter is a mixture of melted butter and white chocolate, ripe bananas, flour, baking powder, vanilla and sugar. Stirring the molten butter and chocolate into the sugary banana base is delightful; the hot butter melds with the banana and sends wafts of heady, perfumed fragrance into the kitchen. It's quite runny, cascading in viscous waves into the tin ready for baking, after you've punctuated it with the delicious sweet, nutty brazil toffee. It smells banana-y, vanilla-y, and buttery.
These can only be good blondies, I thought to myself as I carefully lowered the baking tray into the oven.
Ha. How little I knew. These are, in fact, possibly the best baked good I have ever put in my mouth
Honestly, I can't even begin to describe how incredible they are. They are so moist and gooey, beautifully sweet and squidgy from the white chocolate, with that subtle enticing banana flavour. They're then rippled with crispy, sugary splinters of brazil nut toffee, adding a gorgeous buttery richness to the entire thing. The combination is incredible.
It's like eating banana bread on steroids , super-charged with white chocolate and brazil nuts.
It kind of reminds me of crumble, the combination of nutty, buttery, crunchy and gooey all at once.
Essentially, they are everything you'd want in a baked good. I think they're actually better than rich, plain chocolate brownies - they have that moreish gooeyness and light, buttery flavour. Plus the nuts really elevate them to something special. It's not like those boring chunks of generic chopped nuts you get in some commercial brownies, that taste of nothing and leave an unpleasant dryness in the mouth. These are toasty, buttery, crunchy and delicious.
Dan Lepard states to leave them until 'stone cold' before slicing into squares. This is probably the first and last time I will ever say anything to the contrary of my idolised baking guru, but - don't. Let them cool until lukewarm, then slice and eat while still semi-molten and gooey. There will be more crumbs. You won't get a neat edge. It will be quite messy and pieces will break off under the pressure of the knife.
Embrace it. Eat the crumbs, because calories consumed while preparing food don't count. Love and cherish those messy edges - rusticity is the key to deliciousness.
Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, as I did, and you've pretty much got the best thing you will ever eat. I do not lie. I am so glad these have been introduced to my life.
Luckily for all you readers, the recipe is available online here. I did, however, make a couple of changes: I used 75g caster sugar for the brazil nut toffee, and then only another 200g (instead of 250g), of which half was caster and half was light brown - I love its caramel flavour. I also used 250g flour, not 200g, as my mixture was quite runny - probably due to the intense ripeness of my bananas (I didn't chop them, as the recipe says, as they were very soft - I just mashed them in with the egg using an electric whisk). Other than that it is the same, in all its beautiful, beautiful glory.
Fudgey. Gooey. Sugary. Crunchy. Nutty. Buttery.
These really are just amazing.
A quick bread is basically a baked good that rises without yeast. Think banana bread, courgette bread, that kind of thing - these usually involve baking powder and/or bicarbonate of soda to make them rise. I was confused because I generally wouldn't think of these things as bread, or at least they're bread in name only because they come in a loaf tin. To me, such goods are really classed as loaf cakes (yeast = bread, therefore no yeast = cake), but if you want to make them sound vaguely healthier by calling them a quick bread, I'm not going to complain!
I absolutely love making loaf cakes, which is what 'quick bread' is in my mind. I'll never forget the first time I performed something akin to alchemy by turning a black tangle of rotting bananas into something moist, fragrant, dense and delicious that could be sliced, liberally buttered and devoured on the spot. I honestly felt like I'd hit a turning point in my life, that from then on things were going to be significantly better now that I could make banana bread.
There really is nothing quite like the aroma of baking banana bread. I used to relish that moment when I realised my bananas were past the point where I wanted to eat them. I would wait patiently with great anticipation, enjoying watching them slide into oblivion, blacken and freckle and shrivel, and then I'd get out the flour, the butter, the spices and the milk and invite all my friends round for banana cake. It became a sort of ritual in my second year at Oxford. Just warm, having emerged from the oven only minutes before, perhaps flavoured with some cardamom, coconut or blueberries...you really can't beat it. I think it's the sweet, sweet taste of frugality, of letting nothing whatsoever go to waste. In these times of austerity (a phrase I hate so much that I can't believe I just wrote it), banana bread is just what you need.
Good for the budget and good for the soul. Good, even, for the waistline. The beauty of making loaf cakes is that you can get away with omitting most of the butter, instead using mashed fruit (fresh or dried - prunes and dates are particularly good) to add moisture and flavour. Loaf cakes are supposed to be dense, hearty and filling - you don't need to cream butter and sugar to lighten them as you would a fluffy Victoria sponge or a fudgy chocolate gateau. I only use 40g of butter in a whole banana loaf, but you'd never guess it from the taste - honestly.
Yet a slice of loaf cake is far, far more satisfying for me than any fancy, fussy, calorie-laden creation. I defy anyone not to prefer a piece of just-baked banana bread over a panna cotta or a tiramisu or a silly tartlet any day. There's something pleasingly rustic about them; they demand to be hacked apart in thick, door-stop slices, slathered in butter and eaten without the necessity for plate or fork.
That, to me, is real food.
A couple of months ago when the markets were drowning in persimmons, I'd googled this interesting fruit and found a few recipes for persimmon bread. I'd read that persimmons can be used in exactly the same way as bananas when baking, and that they even have a similar flavour.
Don't worry - I bet you're wondering what a persimmon is. Hardly anyone I know knows what a persimmon is. Yeah, I know, I should choose my friends more wisely.
In fact, my boyfriend is convinced I've made the whole thing up and that this fruit does not, in fact, exist. So much so that he has now nicknamed this creation "Made-Up Fruit Bread".
A persimmon is sometimes called a kaki or sharon fruit.
There are two types; you're more likely to be familiar with the Fuyu persimmon (see below), which looks like a bright orange tomato. It's small and squat, sometimes perfectly four-leaf-clover shaped, sometimes more round. It has a brownish green stalk and little leaves. The skin is quite hard, even when ripe, but the inside softens and becomes jelly-like. The texture is almost exactly like a tomato: harder skin, soft gelatinous flesh, but the flavour is somewhere between a peach and a mango.
They are a joy to eat, with their mild fruity flavour and their lovely textural contrast between the crunchy skin and jelloid innards. They work really well thinly sliced in salads, perhaps with some sharp cheese like feta or some salty ham. If you've never tried one before, perhaps too scared or confused by their masquerading as orange tomatoes, do take the plunge. Let them ripen until they give easily when pressed, rather like a mango, then slice into wedges and eat.
A hachiya persimmon is much bigger, usually, with much softer, thinner skin. These can be unpleasantly astringent unless perfectly, wobblingly ripe: basically, you have to wait until it feels like a water balloon in your hand before you can think about eating it (which, incidentally, makes for transportation issues). These persimmons are better for baking with, because you can just chuck the whole thing - minus the stalk - in a blender when ripe and purée it to smithereens. It can now be used in the same way as mashed bananas.
I had some hachiya persimmons a while ago that had started to become too jelloid even for my liking. Being the freakishly-organised wannabe home economist that I am, I puréed them and froze the pulp for a later use. I just had to try out persimmon bread.
This is a variation of several recipes I came across while researching persimmon bread; I added a few bits of my own and altered a few things according to my whims. I wanted something healthy enough to be eaten for breakfast (liberally slathered with butter, of course, which is why it had to be healthy to start with at least...), but also decadent enough to eat warm with a cup of tea mid-afternoon. I wanted something moist, fragrant, satisfying; everything a 'quick bread' should be.
In the end I came up with a persimmon bread flavoured with warm spices, vanilla and orange zest, and enriched with crunchy, earthy walnuts and juicy sultanas. You need a bit of texture in a banana bread; walnuts or pecans provide the perfect crunch while really balancing the moreish sweetness of the bananas, so I was sure they'd work with persimmons. And who doesn't love finding a juicy, plump sultana or raisin in the middle of their cake? Only weird people. The loaf is enriched with buttermilk for moisture, persimmon purée for flavour and texture, eggs to hold it all together and a little sugar (brown, for the gorgeous caramel flavour) and butter just so it's still a treat. I used half plain and half wholemeal flour, the latter so it could lend its delicious nuttiness to the whole occasion.
It's ridiculously easy to make, but what's even more ridiculous is how much the smell emanating from your oven as it bakes will have you salivating. There really is nothing on earth more comforting or appetising, I truly believe.
I have to say, I was amazed by the result of this experiment. The bread came out beautifully. It developed a gorgeous dark crust peppered with walnut pieces, while lurking underneath was an incredibly moist, luscious, cakey interior. There was a definite nutty flavour from the wholemeal flour, complemented by the walnuts, but not so much that it didn't still feel like cake. The crumb was incredibly moist, no doubt a result of the buttermilk, fruit purée and small amount of butter I used. Best of all, there's a wonderful warm, autumnal current of spices and orange zest running through the whole thing.
But the ultimate test was performed by my mother, who asked to try a 'tiny' piece, making me cut her the most ridiculous of slivers which is totally impossible to do with a cake this crumbly and moist, and then afterwards asked for another piece. When I grumbled, saying why couldn't she have just asked for a normal-sized piece in the first place, she remarked, "I was worried it was going to taste too worthy, but it doesn't."
So, there you have it. A healthy(ish) quick bread that you'll never believe is, in fact, quite good for you. I can recommend eating a couple of thick slices of this toasted for breakfast and spread with butter. It really is incredible. I actually enjoyed mine with some persimmon jam made for me by a lovely friend of mine who is currently living in St Petersburg, where apparently they have huge gluts of persimmons over the autumn. It has a really interesting, subtle sweet flavour that was delicious on the nutty, earthy bread.
Incidentally, if you can't find persimmons, another joy of this recipe is its versatility - you can use bananas instead of persimmons and basically whatever fruit, nuts and spices you like. I reckon cardamom would be wonderful, as would brazil nuts and dried apricots. Give it a go for a breakfast/teatime treat with a difference.
What are your favourite quick bread/loaf cake recipes? Can anything really beat a good banana bread?
Persimmon and walnut spice bread (makes 1 loaf):
- 2 large hachiya persimmons, puréed in a blender (or 2 large very ripe bananas, mashed)
- 3 tbsp melted butter
- 1 tsp good vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 80g brown sugar
- 100ml buttermilk, yoghurt or milk
- 150g plain flour
- 150g wholemeal flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Pinch of salt
- 1.5 tsp mixed spice
- Finely grated zest of 1 orange
- 60g walnut or pecan pieces, chopped (or other nuts of your choice)
- 60g sultanas or raisins (or other dried fruit of your choice)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a loaf tin.
In a large bowl, beat together the persimmon purée, melted butter, vanilla, eggs, sugar and buttermilk. In another bowl, sift together the flours, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and mixed spice. Add this to the wet ingredients and fold together with a large spoon until just combined. Stir in the orange zest, walnuts (reserve a few for decorating) and sultanas.
Pour into the prepared tin and scatter the remaining walnuts over the top. Bake for around 50 minutes until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean (or just about clean - it doesn't matter if you under-bake it a bit, as it'll just be even more moist and delicious).
Allow to cool if you have the willpower, and serve with lots of butter. It keeps very well and is wonderful toasted if you're not eating it fresh (though why wouldn't you?!)
Last night, it started snowing. Feather-light flakes were falling from the sky as my boyfriend and I left the house to walk to town for dinner. We lingered over dim sum - gorgeous cloud-like cha siu pork buns; sticky, ginger-spiced prawn dumplings; wispy fried taro paste croquettes with a creamy and delectable meat filling - for about an hour and a half. When we emerged, we found the snow whirling fast and furious through the air, and at least two inches on the ground. Fast forward three hours later to exiting the cinema, and I was sinking in snow halfway up to my calves. There was a sweet and beautiful silence all around as we trudged home, stopping for a childish detour to run madly over a pristine patch of virgin snow, tutting at people attempting to drive, and incredulous as we spied girls sporting bare legs and heels. (If you are one of those types, I honestly would love to know how you do it - email me).
Despite the bitter chill and the surprising effort required to walk for forty minutes in deep snow, I treasured that walk home. There was an eerie light in the sky, a ceiling of fluffy snow clouds stained with the glow of numerous street lamps. Cars made barely a sound, gently rolling and fumbling along; echoes of shouting and general weekend revelry were swallowed whole by the lavish carpet laid out by the clouds; everything subject to the capricious whim of mother nature. Sometimes I think we get ahead of ourselves in this modern day and age and need a thorough coating of snow to remind us that we are, in fact, very lucky to be allowed to remain on this planet, given that we are in fact completely at the mercy of forces beyond our control.
This morning, my garden and the surrounding houses looked like some feature from an old stately home that hasn't been lived in for years, where everything has been covered in dust sheets rendering it featureless, bleak, unrecognisable. My favourite part of snow is the flat light that comes with it, making the everyday seem otherworldly and allowing the landscape to sprawl on almost indefinitely in meandering white waves. Almost indefinitely, of course - it was broken everywhere I looked today by excitable children building snowmen and igloos.
For breakfast, I made waffles.
Perfect winter fare, given their association with skiing and colder climes. There's nothing like a steaming hot waffle, replete with butter and sugar and smothered in something even more calorific, to warm you from the inside out on a cold day.
These are not just any waffles, though - they're banana oatmeal waffles. Essentially, banana porridge in waffle form (and far healthier than the buttery Belgian kind, which seem a little too indulgent for breakfast, even when it is minus two outside). The recipe is a simple porridgey mixture of very ripe bananas (the kind I had to ask my parents not to throw away as they sat blackening and mouldering in the fruit bowl), milk, oats and cinnamon, plus a little flour, baking powder and an egg to help bind it all together and make it turn fluffy and lovely in the waffle maker.
I served these with a generous drizzle of maple syrup, plus toasted pecans and some blueberries. If I'd had some bananas that weren't almost liquid inside their skins, I'd have sliced them over too. They were gorgeous - crispy on the outside but moist and fluffy within, with a delicate banana flavour. The crunchy pecans and tangy blueberries were a perfect combination, along with the necessary sweetness of the syrup (I didn't add any sugar to the batter, so they needed those caramel notes to lift them a bit).
I couldn't resist taking these outside and photographing them against the beautiful blank canvas that was my snowy garden. Naturally, my cat decided to take a great interest and get in the way. Fortunately at the last minute she decided that waffles weren't quite meaty enough for her feline tastes, though you never know with these animals - my other cat is a big fan of blue cheese.
It's been a real case of trial and error, experimenting with my new waffle maker (a Christmas present). The first batch I made were flabby and awful, as the heat setting wasn't high enough. They looked rather like greying, rubbery teatowels. Subsequent attempts were OK but had a tendency to go soggy as soon as they emerged from the machine, I suspect due to not leaving them to cook for long enough. Finally I think I've cracked it - cook them for longer than you'd think necessary to give a nice crisp exterior, then put them in a warm oven to stay hot. Serving them one at a time helps, too - stacking them up means the underlying ones go a bit soggy.
And of course, the key to turning an average waffle experience into a great one is simple: liberal amounts of maple syrup.
These are lovely - the slight banana flavour, the contrast with the crisp pecans and the sharp bite of the berries...just perfect for a snowy winter morning, accompanied by a large mug of tea and two hilarious cats whose attempts to negotiate the snow never fail to amuse, every year.
Do you have any favourite foods to cook when it's snowing?
Banana oatmeal waffles (makes about 6 waffles, enough for 2 people):
- 2 very ripe bananas, mashed
- 1 egg
- 100g oats
- 5 tbsp flour, sifted
- 5 tbsp milk
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Toasted pecans/sliced banana/maple syrup/blueberries, to serve (I'd recommend all of them!)
- Icing sugar, for dusting
Pre-heat your waffle maker. Whisk together (preferably using an electric whisk) the bananas and egg, then add the rest of the ingredients. You want the batter to be fairly thick (a little thinner than it would be for American-style pancakes), so add more flour or oats if necessary, or milk if you think it's too thick. It's really a case of trial and error - if the first waffles don't come out quite right, adjust the mixture.
Spoon about 3 tbsp of the mixture into your waffle maker (how much you use depends on the size and shape of your waffle maker, but you'll probably know how much mixture yours takes if you use it regularly). Cook for 4-5 minutes until crispy on the outside. You can put the waffles in a warm oven while you make another batch, or cook them to order. Scatter with your chosen toppings, drizzle with maple syrup and dust with icing sugar, then serve immediately.
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
- 2 eggs
- 80g dark muscovado sugar
- 120ml milk
- 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.
I think that if I had lived in the age where they still taught Home Economics to girls at school, I would have come top in my year, simply based on my uncanny ability to never throw out a banana. I just can't do it. I see a bowl full of withering, blackening bananas as a huge goldmine of untapped potential. The possibilities are almost endless. Banana cake is my favourite (and has appeared on this blog a couple of times), but equally good is a smoothie made with any combination of fruits and a ripe banana or two. The fun doesn't stop there: ripe bananas mashed into pancake batter give a fluffier, slightly sweeter pancake that is ideal with a compote of poached blueberries or apricots, and ripe banana sliced into porridge is great with cinnamon and berries. Having tried and tested all these possibilities, however, it was time to attempt something else. I'd been sent some samples of Billington's sugar to try out, as well, and it seemed appropriate to try out a recipe that combined three different types. This ice cream is the (sublime) result.
Billington's boast that their sugar is some of the best because, instead of refining out all the goodness of sugar (i.e. the natural molasses of the sugar cane), their unrefined sugars lock it in. I much prefer this sugar to the bland, virgin-white granules you put in tea or coffee, though I concede that white sugar does have a place in recipes where you just want sweetness, rather than added depth of flavour. However, on opening packets of Billington's molasses sugar and dark muscovado sugar, the smell is enough to foster an addiction. Molasses sugar is one of the darkest, stickiest, richest sugars you can get: almost like powdered treacle. Dark muscovado has less molasses in it (around 13%) but still has that almost coffee-like flavour that works so well in fruit cakes. Both of them are just the thing for a dense, dark, banana bread or coffee cake, or, of course, banana pecan caramel ice cream. I used the muscovado in the pecan caramel, and the molasses sugar in the brandy snap baskets I decided to make to showcase my frozen labour of love.
I used a recipe from my favourite food blog, Pastry Studio. It's astoundingly simple, as far as ice cream goes: the actual ice cream is simply a mixture of (white) sugar, ripe bananas, cream, whole milk, nutmeg and lemon juice, blitzed in a blender. No faffing around with infusing milk, then adding eggs to make a custard. The nutmeg brings out the banana flavour rather wonderfully, though I'll probably add more next time. I have a bit of an addiction as far as nutmeg is concerned.
For the salted pecan caramel, you just mix dark muscovado sugar and cream together, heating until it thickens, and then stir in some toasted pecan nuts and a generous pinch of salt and vanilla extract (the key is to keep tasting until it's got that wonderful salty tang that accentuates the sweetness and the nuttiness of the pecans). Leave this to come to room temperature, and then it's layered up with the churned ice cream base. It's immensely satisfying, layering the whole thing in an empty Carte D'Or tub, and knowing that its contents will be infinitely better than the sad, processed, commercial rubbish that the tub once contained.
To encase my delicious creation, I decided to make brandy snap baskets. Or rather, snap baskets, as I had no brandy. These are a simple mixture of molasses sugar, butter, golden syrup, flour and ground ginger, heated together until smooth. Dollop the mixture on baking parchment and bake for about seven minutes until it has spread out. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes, then mould the baskets around the bottom of a jam jar or glass (another immensely satisfying process, albeit one that burns your hands a little bit). Mine were thicker than I'd like, possibly because I didn't loosen the mixture with any brandy, but they still tasted fantastic. I'm a definite fan of molasses sugar now, and am keen to try it in a cake or muffins.
If you have an ice cream maker, I'd urge you to try this. It really is amazing. The banana flavour is incredibly pronounced, considering it's frozen, I think because of the lemon juice and nutmeg in the cream. The salted caramel is just wonderful. The brandy snap baskets are so much more than just a container (though a nightmare to eat without snapping pieces off everywhere). All in all, a triumph, and a homage to Billington's sugar. They should be proud.