Cook’s Illustrated finally went off the deep end this month. I’ve seen this moment coming for years, as they gradually ran through the classic American repertoire and resorted to publishing home versions of questionable restaurant fare and revisiting recipes that were already perfect. I’m a charter subscriber; I’ve been getting this magazine in the mail every other month since 1993, and every time I think about dropping it they run something that is so good that it pays for the year’s subscription. I refer to my back issues more than to any cookbook on my shelf. So I don’t say this lightly. But my old reliable has gone off the deep end. What’s finally done it? What’s inspired one of my rare full-on Internet rants and a corrective recipe?
Extreme banana bread.
To make banana bread I am now asked to take six bananas, microwave them, drain them, collect the juices and then reduce the juices on the stove to concentrate them. People, come on. Banana bread is not a gourmet food. It is not a special-occasion dessert. It is a quick and clever way to use up bananas that are too brown and mushy to eat. It is a way to turn something you would have thrown away into a pretty decent midmorning snack. I am willing to go to this kind of trouble for pound cake, because it’s, well, pound cake, and pound cake is a good bit of work however you make it, and it’s worth it, because people get all melty when they eat really good pound cake. I’m willing to go to this kind of trouble to preserve or accentuate the flavor of some expensive and delicate ingredient, say pistachios or fresh fennel, but bananas are what, seventy cents a pound? Nothing is seventy cents a pound these days. They’re practically disposable. The only thing extreme about banana bread is its frugality.
I get tired of this foodie practice of turning basic, traditional family food items into gourmet dishes. I think people should cook more than they do, cook every day, cook as the norm — not necessarily assemble every single meal from scratch from real food prepared at home, but it’s not a bad goal. I think people should bake banana bread instead of buying twinkies or whatever. Nobody is going to do this if they aspire to perfection every single time. Nineteen times out of twenty, cooking is about getting dinner (or breakfast, or lunch) on the table. That means that, nineteen times out of twenty, pretty good is good enough. That twentieth time? Yeah, I like to play Iron Chef too. But the rest of the time, face it, you do not need extreme anything. It just has to be pretty good.
(When it has to be better, I can save up and go to Magnolia Grill, where I’m sure if Karen Barker served me banana bread it would make me weep. She would probably make it into bread pudding and serve it with cardamom ice cream, and I would spend the next five years talking about it. But I digress.)
Seriously, banana bread. What purpose does banana bread serve in my life? Sometime between breakfast and lunch, or maybe in the middle of the afternoon, I get hungry. I could open a box of crackers, or I could go to the vending machine. Or I could have a piece of banana bread. So banana bread is a food that should be good enough to save me from the temptation of the vending machine, but healthier and cheaper than a Snickers bar. I need to be able to throw it together and clean up after myself in the time it takes the oven to heat up, which is maybe fifteen minutes.
I happened to have a bunch of fruit fly-bait bananas on the counter, so here is my Pretty Good Banana Bread. It is based on the proportions and technique of the Garden Vegetable Bread in the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook, which is a reliable Pretty Good all-around baking reference, with two changes: I cut the sugar back a bit because bananas are pretty sweet, and I used melted butter instead of vegetable oil because I like butter and I do that sometimes. (Interestingly, I now see that these proportions are almost identical to those in Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe. Because it’s freakin’ banana bread.)
I rinsed the last dish at the exact moment the oven beeped to tell me it was hot, and that was including the time it took me to get a Band-Aid for the knuckle I scraped on the underside of the cabinet. So mission accomplished, except for the blood. All I’m saying is, it’s pretty good, you know? It’s practically free (since I was going to throw away the bananas), it’s reasonably healthy, it didn’t take much work. And it will be better than the vending machine tomorrow.
Recipe: Pretty Good Banana Bread
- 1 stick butter
- 3 or so bananas past their prime (2 or 4 is probably fine)
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups flour (I used half white and half whole wheat)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3/4 cup light brown sugar (or white, or dark brown, or a mix
- 1/2 cup or so walnuts (or pecans, or nothing)
- Heat the oven to 350°. Grease a loaf pan.
- Put the butter in a medium glass bowl and melt the butter in the microwave. Half power or the defrost setting for 2 minutes works for me, and the low power means the butter doesn’t splatter, but you could cover it with plastic wrap. (If you don’t have a glass bowl, use a cup, or a pan on the stove, but I’m trying to cut down on dishes to wash.)
- While the butter is melting, whisk together the flour, salt, soda, spices, and sugar in a second larger bowl.
- When the butter is melted, peel the bananas, add them to the butter, and mash with a potato masher until they are smooth-ish. (Again, you could use a separate bowl, because they won’t get quite as smooth with the butter in there, but I’m trying to cut down on the washing up.) Beat in the eggs with a whisk, or you could probably get away with the rubber spatula you’re going to need in the next step.
- With a rubber spatula (told you!) scrape the wet mixture into the dry and stir or fold to barely combine it. Crumble in some walnuts, probably a half-cup-ish, but I didn’t measure. (Most recipes tell you to chop them, and you certainly can, but, again: knife, cutting board. Washing up. You get the idea.) Then scrape the whole mess into your loaf pan and put it in the oven when it’s hot.
- Bake it for 45 minutes or so, maybe longer — I have a convection oven so it bakes fast — until a cake tester comes out clean. (You know what works well for this? One of those fondue forks you never ever use.) Cool the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack before you try to turn out the bread, then cool the bread on the rack.