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Monday, August 20, 2012

Banana Bread

I have always been on the lookout for a definitive banana bread recipe, and I've finally found it in the form of my friend Lauren's MIL's recipe (which I have since learned is the banana bread recipe from the 1970 Betty Crocker's Cookbook (the red one with the wheel of food on the cover). It's not what I normally think of when I think of banana bread -- that is to say a slightly spicy bread filled with nuts. In contrast, it is pale, white, devoid of spice (although you can certainly add spice in), and also devoid of mix-ins (which again, you can always add back in). It also has, to my thinking, a lot of baking powder in it, and I was expecting there to be an aftertaste. But I tried the recipe because I trust my friend Lauren's opinion since she too is an avid baker. And to my great surprise, I preferred this recipe of plain banana bread to any other that I've tried yet, and I think you will too. It is fluffy and pure, with a banana taste that hits you right in the face.

I've made this bread plain, with chocolate chips, and with cinnamon and pecans, and that is the order of my preference -- plain, chocolate chip, and then nuts/spice. I'd highly recommend making it plain the first time you try it, and then you can always change it up later if your tastebuds want something extra.

But first, because I've missed writing them, a brief banana interlude. Skip down to ignore my rambling and get right to the recipe!

Bananas are native to Southeast Asia, and have been cultivated for at least the last 5000 years, if not longer! They didn't start becoming popular in the United States until after the Civil War, and it wasn't until 1933 that the first recipe for banana bread appeared in an American cookbook (Balanced Recipes by Pillsbury). Coincidentally, the appearance of this first banana quickbread recipe coincides with a marked rise in the use of the chemical leavening agents baking powder and baking soda in America in the 1930's (get it -- "rise"? I crack myself up).

Little known fact: bananas are actually slightly radioactive due to their high potassium content. They contain small amounts of the isotope potassium-40, which has a half-life of 1.25 billion years! One banana does not have an appreciable amount of radiation, a trace amount when eaten that has been termed the Banana Equivalent Dose, or BED. But, a whole truckload of bananas actually has enough radiation to trigger false alarms by the Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs) that screen goods coming into US land and sea ports (!

Today, virtually all sweet bananas sold (as opposed to plantains) are of the Cavendish variety, but currently that variety is under threat of being damaged by a brand-new strain (Tropical Race 4; TR4) of a soil fungal infection called Panama Disease. A different strain of Panama Disease, Race 1, all but destroyed the previous large-scale banana cultivar, Gros Michel, in the 1950's. Blights on banana crops have such stunningly devastating effects because cultivated bananas are in fact sterile -- they produce no seeds. They are not crossed and bred like other crops to maintain genetic diversity, with the result that all Cavendish bananas are essentially clones with identical genetic material -- which means they are all equally susceptible to TR4.  It is estimated that in anywhere from 5-20 years, TR4 will reach South America and permanently cripple the Cavendish banana supply. Worse, unlike the situation in the 50's where Cavendish stepped up after the demise of Gros Michel, there is currently no viable Cavendish replacement for large-scale banana cultivation. Other variants that exist are so far away from what you and I would consider the "typical banana" that most people would consider these alternate variants to not even be bananas!

Back to the baking!

I apologize for the pictures, when I gathered up the photos I had in hand, I realized that some of them are from the time I tried the recipe plain, some are from when I added chocolate chips, while others are from the time I tried adding nuts. So the pics are sort of all over the place, if you are wondering why one pic might have chips while the next pic is of plain bread…

This recipe is so easy, I almost can't stand it. First, mash up the bananas, the riper they are, the better (a fork works great for this).

Then, combine the bananas with all the other ingredients, and mix until moistened (about 30 seconds in a stand mixer).

Pour into a 9x5" loaf pan (I used the Pam baking spray with flour in it to coat the pan first, or you can do the traditional grease and flour), and bake at 350F for 55-65 minutes until the top of the bread is golden, and a tester is clean.

I can't say enough good things about this bread. It is simple, easy, and tastes fantastic even without anything in it -- in fact I prefer it plain, which is unusual for me! But you can easily use this recipe as a base and customize it with nuts and spices, or chocolate chips; I've tried both of those variations as well and they are both yummy!

Banana Bread
  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 Tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup mashed very ripe banana (2-3 bananas)
  • 1 egg
  • optional mix-ins: 1C of nuts or chocolate chips
  • optional spice: 1 tsp cinnamon

  1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Grease and flour your loaf pan.
  3. Beat the mixture for 30 seconds on medium speed (the great part of the recipe is that you don't have to cream anything or do any step-wise additions; just dump all the ingredients into the bowl and mix).
  4. Pour into a 9-5" loaf pan.
  5. Bake 55-65 minutes until tester comes out clean

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