I try not to be a picky eater. Even though my mother often admits to being choosy about her food and my father has rebelled against casserole donations from well meaning acquaintances, they enforced a fairly firm food code during my childhood. This included the “try at least one bite” policy and the “dinner is what’s on your plate” rule. Until I was old enough to cook up my own food, I ate peanut butter and jelly with the rest of my siblings (peanut butter is great and jelly is tasty, but why do people enjoy smushing them together into such terrifying textural atrocities?) and wrestled my way through innumerable bowls of boiled oats.
Now that I’m on my own for making food choices, I’m still willing to “try at least one bite” of any food I come across, so their methods seem to have worked well. My openness towards most foods has only been exacerbated by time spent in kitchens with lots of overtime and little space for lunch breaks. During the busiest seasons it’s easy to get used to eating the imperfect remnants and less-than-stellar experiments because there’s no time to look for anything else.
Which is a rather wordy way to work up to excusing the fact that I have discovered that I am, in fact, quite picky about some things. I’m picky about carrot cake, and cream cheese frosting. I’m picky about tomato soup, and I’m picky about macaroni and cheese. But the only thing that really concerns this post is that I’m picky about banana bread.
I didn’t know I cared so strongly about it for years. I grew up making basic banana breads from my mother’s staple cookbooks and knew that I liked them. I usually threw nuts into half of the batter, for my father’s sake, and left the other half plain (my personal preference). The add-in nuts were always walnuts, the bread was always baked in loaf pans and very rarely lasted longer than a day. It took me a long time to learn that it’s often more aromatically in-your-face banana flavored on day two.
And then I discovered the internet, and thrift store cookbooks, and all the crazy, intricate things that people do to basic foods. It happens to everything, it seems, this dialing up of ingredients. I understand the urge, since I, too, like to push the envelope of flavor combinations, toppings, and mix-ins. But I’ve tried it with banana bread so many times that I’m willing to admit something. I don’t think the original can be improved.
At least ingredient wise. I’ve come across a few tips and techniques that make the basics shine to their fullest ability and I regularly put those into use. But chocolate chips and nuts and spices and bourbon and all their kin feel like gilding the lily on this one. I like my banana bread with sweet cream butter, white refined sugar, and vanilla. I’ve baked it in sheets, squares, muffins, and rounds and I am prepared to testify that it tastes better in the classic loaf form.
I felt guilty this afternoon, mixing up a plain Jane batch of a recipe I’ve made more times than I can count, so I threw a coconut streusel lid on it and tossed a touch of ginger and cinnamon into the mix. It is fall after all. The end result isn’t bad, in fact it’s quite tasty, but it isn’t an improvement over the basic recipe. So here’s the best recipe for banana bread that I have ever experimented with, in all its stubbornly perfect simplicity.
Banana Bread (from The Olives Dessert Table)
3 bananas – that hopefully look something like this
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 pound melted butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsps baking soda
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 inch loaf pan.
Combine the bananas and sugar by beating at high speed for as long as your patience allows, somewhere between 3-10 minutes. Stir in the butter, eggs, and vanilla, then add in the flour, salt, and baking soda. Pour into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a toothpick poked into the center of the bread comes out clean (this takes about an hour in my oven). Cool in the pan for 15 minutes and then turn out. I find that the flavor deepens over time and think that banana bread tastes best cold, but that never stops me from eating the first half of the loaf while it’s still steaming on my cutting board.
If you still don’t believe me about the lack of need for a streusel, here’s the recipe for that little extra touch.
Oatmeal Crumble (adapted, loosely, from The Olives Dessert Table)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 stick softened butter
6 TBSP flour
1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes
2/3 cup ground walnuts
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
Rub all ingredients together until the mixture looks sandy and the butter is evenly distributed. Sprinkle thickly over the top of your banana bread just before baking. (This recipe was the perfect amount for a double recipe of bread, or two loaves. If you have extra, it’s a great fruit topping.)