Banana Bread

 

Carrot Almond Cake

 
Breakfast: Banana Bread
(Adapted from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book)
 
I still remember when I first baked banana bread not so long ago in a west Philly kitchen. The recipe was from a Tyler Florence cookbook. I’d never tried banana bread before, but I had a handful of overripe sweet-smelling bananas that crumbled in my fingers as I unpeeled them and I didn’t know what to do with them. I’ve eaten bananas prepared many ways: chopped into fruit salads or Greek yogurt, caramelized with butter in a pan, poached in coconut milk. But it always struck me as strange to cook them in a cake. That is, until I tasted banana bread freshly baked, still warm from the oven, so moist its consistency was of challah French toast, with the occasional pop of a nut and pocket of molten dark chocolate.
 

A friend of mine serves hers like a pudding: the trick is to dip your spoon into its wobbly center only seconds after the pan is removed from the oven. The experience becomes communal, with everyone scooping hot chunks of the bread. For a richer and messier version, suitable for dessert or brunch, my friend spreads nutella on her banana bread.
 
There are many versions of banana bread, from the elegant citrus-olive scented recipe by Melissa Clark to a nut and seed speckled version bound together by coconut oil to the traditional walnut butter rendition. For a long time I was faithful to Tyler Florence’s recipe with toasted pecans, but lately I find myself led astray by America’s Test Kitchen baking book. I’ve tweaked the recipe for less sugar and more nuts, and I’ve added chocolate chips, because there’s nothing more glorious than forking that first corner of banana bread and encountering streaks of melted chocolate. To my taste, this is just about the perfect recipe, it’s somewhat unadorned and as a result each ingredient sings: the toasted walnuts, the soft banana pieces, the golden crust. It’s the kind you can eat away at during the week, toasting pieces and lathering them with your best salted butter.
 
Ingredients:
 
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 very ripe large bananas, or 4 very ripe medium bananas
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup toasted walnuts coarsely chopped
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
 
Directions:
 
Adjust an over rack to the lower-middle position and preheat over to 350F. Grease a loaf or square pan.
 
In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, baking soda, and sugar. In a medium bowl, mash bananas with a fork and whisk in melted butter, eggs, yogurt, and vanilla. Gently fold the banana mixture with a rubber spatula until just combined, taking care to not over-mix. Fold in the walnuts and chocolate.
 
Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake for 45-55 minutes, checking with a knife, it should come out with just a few crumbs attached.
 
Let the banana bread cool before serving, but remember to taste a steaming hot corner with a fork.
 
 
Afternoon-tea: cardamom chocolate scones
 

 
I was raised in Australia where scones are eaten with strawberry jam and cream at teatime. In college I tried my first scone with chocolate, made by a friend of a friend. I was intrigued. I launched into a scone frenzy, baking dozens of different recipes, experimenting with fruits and spices. Then I stopped, mostly because I was going through butter, buttermilk, and cream, much too quickly.
 
Recently, someone told me that cardamom is his secret ingredient, elusive and floral it adds that extra kick to anything from French toast to yogurt. Last year I baked cardamom in muffins, this year the pods cooked with rice, and for my birthday I was once surprised with these charming oatmeal cardamom pancakes. In my fridge I had a half-tub of sour cream nearing its expiration date, and on my shelf, a jar of ground cardamom. I took a basic scone recipe from allrecipe.com, et voilà!
 
These scones flake under your teeth as if croissants and shortbread had arrived to a happy agreement; the cardamom and chocolate form an impeccable marriage.
 
Ingredients:
 
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar + more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
heaping 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 stick of butter, frozen
1 large egg
1/2 cup sour cream + more to brush on tops of scones
 
Directions:
 
Preheat oven at 400F.
 
The beauty of this recipe is that you only need one big bowl! In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom, and salt. Stir well with a fork. Place a cheese grater in the middle of the bowl and grate the frozen stick of butter directly into the flour mixture. This is a helpful trick that can be used for most cookies, especially the cake-y ones.
 
Add the sour cream and egg, stir well with a fork until the mixture comes together in soft clumps, and continue mixing with your hands until a smooth ball of dough forms. Make two balls and push one ball gently on a clean surface. Cut the flattened ball into four triangles with a sharp knife, do the same with the second ball, and place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush scones with sour cream and sprinkle with sugar.
 
Cook for 15-20 minutes (mine needed about 20 minutes), check to make sure the bottoms and tops are golden-brown.
 
 
Dessert: Carrot Almond Cake with Ricotta Cream
(Barely adapted from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison)
 

 
This dessert was created to impress: it looks stunning when sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, it is easy to make and garners sophistication from almonds and lemons and ricotta. The cake does acquire a beautiful orange coloring from the grated carrots, but at its heart, it is more of an almond cake than a carrot cake. Less oily and sweet, this is a light cake with sharp citrus tones, topped with a delicate ricotta cheese sauce flavored with a touch of honey. What surprised me the most was how delicious the cake was the following day: stored in an airtight container it gained in moisture, and I couldn’t stop myself from standing in my kitchen holding the Tupperware and picking at crumbs. I’m almost inclined to bake it the day before serving. I toasted a slice and added a thin scraping of butter for breakfast. I carried a piece onto the subway for an afternoon snack. I dipped an edge into the ricotta sauce and licked my fingers clean. The ricotta lemon sauce deserves a chapter of its own, I imagine it would be an ideal accompaniment for a berry salad or pancakes.
 
Ingredients:
 
4 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 cups finely ground almonds
Zest from two lemons
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cups unbleached cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
5 medium eggs or 4 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Scant 2 cups grated carrots (I used orange, the recipe recommends yellow), about two large carrots
 
The Ricotta Cream:
 
1 cup ricotta cheese (the best kind you can find)
1 cup sour cream or crème fraiche
2 tablespoons honey or to taste
Grated zest of one lemon
 
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
 
Directions:
 
Preheat oven to 375F. Melt the butter and set aside to cool.
 
Stir almond meal with lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust the sides with some of the almond mixture. In a bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
 
With an electric mixer beat together the eggs and ¾ cup sugar on high speed until pale and foamy, for about five minutes. Whisk in the almond mixture, the almond extract, and the flour mixture, until just mixed. Pour the cooled butter and stir, and add the carrots.
 
Scrape batter into the cake mold, smooth the top and put the cake in the oven. Lower temperature to 350F. Bake until the cake is springy in the middle, for 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool before releasing from the pan.
 
For the ricotta cream: mix the ricotta, sour cream, honey and zest with a wooden spoon until smooth. Taste and add more honey if you find it not sweet enough.
 
Just before serving dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar. Use a very sharp knife as the cake is springy and difficult to cut at first. Serve sauce alongside the cake.
 
Spring is arriving:
 

 
 

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