Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Yes! We have no bananas

I was very annoyed the other day. I was feeling very virtuous, very shall I say, victory gardenish.

I had purchased bananas at my husband’s request. His intentions were good – he wanted a healthy snack to grab and instead of Oreos but somehow the Oreos often won the battle.

So now I had brown bananas drooping over the fruit bowl. Some looked like they had the banana version of the measles.

I decided to make banana bread with the abandoned bananas. But all the recipes I have call for the addition of an acidic ingredient: usually buttermilk but sometimes yogurt or sour cream. And I didn’t have any of these.

So now I was annoyed.

Banana bread becomes less virtuous not to mention less convenient if you have to drive to the store for buttermilk.

While I sometimes have sour cream in the fridge, I rarely have buttermilk or plain yogurt. And I know it is a real time saver and an economic choice but I dislike using powdered buttermilk. It just seems wrong to use an instant mix in a cake made from scratch.

All of this got me wondering about why I had to use buttermilk or equivalent at all. I mean, who decided that anyway?

I decided to burn off my annoyance by pouring through my cookbooks for a recipe that didn’t call for an acidic ingredient in its banana bread. I wanted to use the milk that I always I had in the fridge, which was generally 1% milk.

I didn’t find any recipes.

Time to experiment!

My first attempt at banana bread using milk was a dismal failure. The cake had a nice slick finish but had a metallic taste to it.

I had forgotten that the role of baking soda in a cake is to mellow out the acidic ingredient whether it be buttermilk, chocolate, yogurt or sour cream. In this case I had used the baking soda but it didn’t have a job to do.

But did I really need the baking soda if I wasn’t using an acidic ingredient? Could I just leave it out and rely on baking powder for the rise I needed?

According to Shirley Corriher in her latest book, BakeWise, the answer is yes:

“Many baking recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda (chemical leaveners that give cakes the rise they need instead of yeast). This may seem redundant since they are both essentially baking soda, but there can be reasons to use both. Baking powder is very reliable. It never leaves a soapy aftertaste because it contains exactly the right amount of acid for the amount of soda and most baking powder is double-acting, meaning it releases carbon dioxide both immediately in the batter and later in the hot oven. But if a recipe contains a considerable amount of an acidic ingredient such as yogurt or sour cream, a little soda may be added in order to neutralize some of the acidity. However, I am a strong believer in creating more acidic batters and doughs. I tend to avoid soda altogether or use it in very small amounts.”

So the baking soda was kicked to the curb.

I did find a small amount of sour cream hiding in a container way back in the fridge so I tried that next. The sour cream gave the cake a fuller, richer flavor but it made for an unattractive, dark crust.

Now I was on a real quest. I decided to make my own banana bread rules:

•Use non-acidic ingredient for the moisture. In my case I would use 1% milk
•Make it low fat by using vegetable oil instead of butter. That way I also didn’t have to remember to soften the butter!
•No loaf pan. I hated how often the middle of the loaf was often under baked. Baking in an 8 or 9-inch pan also let me have a cake that would bake in 35 minutes versus an hour.
•Leave out the baking soda and let the baking powder do the job of making the cake rise.

But of course now I was out of bananas! Usually I’m trying to find just the right bunch, the one that has a few bananas ready to eat now as well as ones that will be ripe later in the week. But now I was the shopper looking for the black and speckled bananas. I got quite a few strange looks as I dug through the banana pile.

My first attempt using my rebel banana bread rules was partially successful. The cake had a nice rise, good finish and nice texture. But it didn’t have the rich taste I was used to in banana bread. It needed the buttermilk.

As I pondered how to pump up the flavor, I remembered the cupcake baking class that I took with Anita Chu, cookbook author and food blogger, at Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco a few months ago

In her class, we had experimented with infusions to add another flavor dimension to the cupcakes.

Since I think of banana bread as a breakfast or afternoon snack that I would enjoy with a cup of coffee, I decided to meld those flavors together.

I heated a bit of milk and added instant espresso (I ALWAYS have instant espresso in the cupboard!) to the milk. After the granules had dissolved, I took the mixture off the heat to steep.

The resulting cake was delicious. The banana flavor was enhanced by a hint of coffee. And you could easily increase the amount of espresso for a more pronounced coffee flavor.

My husband cut wedges and slathered peanut butter on them for a mid-afternoon protein pickup. Of course, that added calories to my low-fat offering but it seemed a better alternative to those Oreos!

As good as that cake was, I wondered if there was a way to make the flavor a bit more complex without using butter or other high fat ingredients.

The next version I made, I mixed in a cup of chocolate chips. Not a lot but enough to give my cake a more sophisticated taste and perhaps do away with the slather of peanut butter. I could have reduced this to ½ cup. With the addition of the coffee and now the chocolate, my bread had a rich mocha taste.

Now, as the song says, I've Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues!

The Low-Fat, No Baking Soda, No Buttermilk
and No Loaf Pan Banana Bread

1/3 cup milk

1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon instant espresso – I use the Medagliadoro brand (to taste)

2 large Eggs

¾ cup of sugar

1 cup to 1.5 cups mashed rip bananas – about three or four ripe bananas

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

231 grams flour (buy a scale already!)

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ to 1 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 8x2 round cake pan with cooking spray.

Heat milk on low heat with instant espresso until dissolved. Remove from heat to let the mixture steep.

Beat eggs and sugar in bowl of electric mixer using paddle attachment until thick and light, about five minutes.

Mix in bananas, milk mixture, oil and vanilla and blend well.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add to batter and mix only until blended. Remove bowl from mixture and give the batter a few turns with a wooden spoon to ensure all the dry ingredients have been integrated.

Pour into prepared pan and smooth top.

Bake until golden brown and tester inserted in center come out clean, about 30-35 minutes.

Cool in pan on wire rack. Once cool, release from pan.

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