Banana bread and I go way back. Way.
It was “my thing” for a while, actually.
Growing up, my mother’s baking repertoire was very nearly purebred Norwegian, and concentrated solely on holidays. The rest of the time the oven’s use was confined to roasts and braises. If it wasn’t boller, birthday cake, or a Christmas cookie, it didn’t get baked at our house.
But, every now and then at a friend’s house I would be invited to have a bite of something wonderful for a snack. A lace-thin slice of intensely moist, banana flavored, bread-cake, shot through with the little black squiggles that banana bread develops, and now and then with melting chocolatey chunks. Best. Snack. Ever. I was convinced of it. I would dream of it often during the long, stark periods during which I had to do without.
When I was in high school, my parents started getting the cooking magazine Eating Well. It was approximately at that age that I decided I wanted to eat healthfully (you know, in between boxes of Oatmeal Crème Pies and Samoa cookies. My ideas are a little more consistent now. Also, more holistically defined.), so I would rifle through the pages of the magazine, feeling virtuous, and looking for things I thought we should cook.
Then one day I discovered a recipe for “easy banana bread.” It did look easy! I had a deep distrust in my baking skills, but I decided I was going to try it nonetheless. I mashed those bananas, stirred in oil, then sugar, and eggs, and flours, and I baked up some perfectly acceptable banana bread. I ate about 3/4s of it all by myself, one slice at a time, standing over the cooling rack next to the oven.
The remaining quarter of the loaf I was generous enough to share with the other four members of my family – at least, I think I was. Maybe it wasn’t until future loaves that I became willing to share. Either way, my family quickly developed a certain fondness for it too.
After I went to college, my brothers would request it whenever I came home on break. “Hey Em! Can you bake some of that banana bread?” Given that at that stage in their lives they had thought that a pug would be a suitably sister-like replacement for me after I left for school (my parents, wisely, said no), I would take any appreciation from them I could get. So, if I was home, banana bread was a regular product of our oven.
I always started from that original old recipe, splattered and wrinkled in my recipe notebook, but I changed and augmented it at will as I became more comfortable in the kitchen. Varying the amount of sugar, swapping in some honey, adding extra eggs, trying it with olive oil, switching up the flour, adding chunks and nuts of all varieties.
One summer in Norway, about four years ago, my family requested banana bread out of the blue. I don’t even know how the idea came up, but we wound up promising my little cousin and his friend that I would make them a very special treat of banan brød. I had no recipe at all to work from, just intuition and years of measurement muscle memory. I couldn’t tell you exactly how I made it, except that it involved the requisite banana, and flour, and also some renegade sour cream (yum). But, it came out deliciously.
My cousin and his friend couldn’t stop chattering about it. My dad doused his with cognac and whipping cream and discovered a delightful new pathway to decadence. At that point, I was officially declared the banana bread queen. And, since my family is, in fact, the official banana bread academy, nominating and voting on royalty and lower court members, well, I consider it official.
So, when the lovely folks at Gojee invited all of their contributors to a potluck, in person for those who could make it and virtual for those who couldn’t, my snap response to what I would bring was banana bread. I mean, who isn’t excited to find approachable, always tasty banana bread there amidst the eclectic spread of a potluck? (And, just an FYI and completely unsubtle plug – I’m not a good plugger! – starting on Thursday, January 26, you can check out other potluck dishes fellow gojee contributors shared. Go to gojee.com and enter “gojeepotluck” into I Crave. And, you can follow #gojeepotluck on Twitter. Yippee skipee!)
Except, I didn’t want to sound boring, so what I actually said was “ginger banana bread,” even though I had never made such a thing. I just had a vague half-baked idea of a combination gingerbread-banana bread delight in my mind. Which meant, I had to set out to create it.
Now, it turns out that a dark, molasses-y gingerbread with bananas is not my favorite thing. I love the pure banana flavor of plain banana bread too much, and lots of spices overwhelms it. It’s muddy, somehow.
Flooding banana bread batter with chunks of crystallized ginger, on the other hand, turns the bread into a dramatically lit banana-y stage for sultry, spicy ginger to do a little vamping across.
To pull even a little more heady spice back into the blend, I sprinkled the top of the loaf with sugar, cardamom and just a suggestion of nutmeg before baking it. This transforms into a beautifully perfumed, crunchy crust as thin and delicate as the winter’s first ice on a pond. It sits atop the tender crumb of the interior and creates a similar effect to the burnt sugar crust on a crème brulee.
Banana bread can skew either towards sturdy and bread-like or moist, dense, and delicate, like a cake. I like both, but this one is pretty solidly on the cake end of the spectrum, and I must say, it is perhaps the best I’ve ever made. It’s slightly more appropriate as a dessert (with cognac and cream anyone?) or accompaniment to afternoon coffee than as a breakfast. But, we’ve been eating it for breakfast too, and there has been a notable lack of complaint.
And, if you’re a banana bread purist, you can skip the ginger chunks, and the crunchy topping, and just bake the batter up plain, and simple, and delicious.
Ginger Banana Bread with Cardamom Crunch Topping (makes one loaf)
- 2 cups all purpose flour (replace up to a cup with the equivalent amount of whole wheat flour, if you wish)
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ½ tsp. salt
- ½ cup chopped crystallized ginger
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 3 1/2 very ripe bananas, mashed
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 Tbs. creme fraiche or sour cream
- ½ cup vegetable oil (preferably peanut oil or canola oil, you can even use a nice olive oil if you wish. I’ve done it. It’s great.)
- 1 ½ Tbs. coarse sugar (raw, demerrera, or muscavado. Regular sugar will work too if you don’t have any of those, though), for the topping
- 1 tsp. cardamom and a pinch of nutmeg, for the topping
- Grease a standard loaf pan well, and preheat your oven to 350F. In a medium bowl stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and crystallized ginger.
- In another mixing bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar until thick and lightened in color, about 5 minutes.
- Stir in the mashed banana, the vanilla, the creme fraiche, and finally the oil, until well combined.
- Gently fold in the dry ingredients, just until everything is combined and there are no dry streaks left. DO NOT overmix! Seriously, don’t. There’s a delicate banana bread ecosystem going on here, and you don’t want to upset the balance because it will make the finished bread tough.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Mix together the 1 ½ Tbs. sugar with the cardamom and nutmeg. Sprinkle this evenly over the batter. Bake for 45-60 minutes (the actual time will depend totally on your oven), until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges to loosen it, take the bread out of the pan, and put on a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way. The flavor is actually the best when the bread is fully cooled, but I know I can’t stop myself nabbing a thin slice while it’s still warm and eating it spread with butter, so I won’t blame you for doing so either.