Here’s your chance to cook with the cast! Make the featured recipe with us and comment on your experience below—we’d love to hear how it goes. Our cooks will answer any questions you may have, too.
9/2/2011 Update: Julia has picked a favorite photo! Take a look to see the top banana.
Contest extended for one more week! For a chance to win an entire Season Three 2-DVD set of Cook’s Country TV autographed by host Christopher Kimball, make this week’s recipe and email a photo of your completed dish to firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday, Sept. 1. Julia will pick her favorite snapshot and name the winner on Friday, Sept. 2. Good luck!
In the Test Kitchen, we often reminisce about the food we ate growing up, which includes plenty of banana bread nostalgia.
I have zero memories of banana bread as a kid.
I imagine my mother thinking that it was really just cake, operating under the guise of bread. Or that it merely turned a wholesome piece of fruit into something sugary, carb-loaded, and nutritionally void. (Did I mention that as a kid I used to eat straight wheat germ by the spoonful?) If I ever did eat banana bread as a kid, it was probably so loaded up with granola and flax seed that I didn’t recognize it.
Free of any cozy banana bread memories from my youth, I now find most banana bread to be quite boring, if not a bit disgusting. The worst are those super-sticky, plastic wrapped slices you find stacked next to the cash register at the gas station. Seriously—do people really eat those? Nevertheless, I’m not easily wooed by any old banana loaf. And I am surely not going to bother making one unless it has a deep, honest banana flavor and a decent texture. It’s gotta be worth it or else my old bananas are going into a smoothie. (I make a mean yogurt-flax smoothie.)
Most banana bread recipes simply exist to make good use of fruit that has gotten too ripe to eat. Not surprisingly, we found that banana bread does taste better when made with well-ripened fruit. The reason is that the sugar content (or fructose percentage) more than doubles in a banana as it turns from bright yellow to heavily-speckled. Of course, most recipes expect you to have just one or two of these overly ripe bananas on hand, whereas we found you need a whopping five super-ripe bananas (plus another for garnish) in order for the bread to have any real flavor.
This ain’t no frugal Franny banana bread. This is banana bread you make on purpose. So you’ve got to be ready to buy a bunch of bananas and watch them go brown. However, if you do want to be a frugal Fanny here, just save up and freeze your overly ripe bananas until you have enough. (Don’t use a frozen banana for the garnish, though.)
MICROWAVE THE BANANAS
OK, so now you’ve got five super-ripe bananas (plus an extra for garnish). But if you simply mash them up and add them to the batter, you’ll wind up with a wet, mushy loaf. The problem is that there is a lot of juice hidden inside five bananas. So the name of the game is to get the bananas to exude their juice before you add them to the batter. How many test cooks does it take to juice a banana? Too many. So we use the microwave and zap the juice out of them for about 5 minutes. For you frugal Fannies using frozen fruit: You don’t need to zap the frozen bananas because they will exude plenty of juice as they thaw.
REDUCE THE JUICE
Now drain the juice from the zapped/thawed bananas by letting them sit in a strainer set over a bowl for 15 minutes. Taste the juice—pretty good eh? (Would also taste terrific in a smoothie.) Denying the bread of the flavor in this juice would be a travesty. So we’re simply going to reduce the juice before adding it to the batter. You know what I mean by reduce, right? Boil it for about 5 minutes in a small saucepan until it’s a thick, banana-flavored syrup. You’ll have all of the flavor but a lot less of the moisture. This trick is what separates real banana bread from those sickly sweet junk food loaves.
The rest of the batter-making process is pretty straightforward. Mash the bananas and reduced banana juice together, then stir in the other liquid ingredients including melted butter, eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla. (I know. Brown sugar is not a liquid. But did you know that sugar is usually regarded as a liquid when analyzing liquid-to-dry ratios in a baking recipe? That’s because it turns into a liquid as it heats up.) Gently fold the banana mixture into the dry ingredients, but don’t be tempted to overmix it or use an electric mixer. If you overmix the batter, the bread will turn into a little tough guy once it’s baked. You don’t want the batter to look smooth and uniform, but rather be a little streaky and lumpy. Oh, and add walnuts if you like. (I like.)
Now scrape the batter into a greased loaf pan and shingle banana slices (a sixth banana!) alongside the edges, but not down the center or else the loaf won’t rise well. Then bake until a toothpick (or bamboo skewer, which is what I usually have in my home kitchen) comes out clean when poked into the center—this takes about 1 hour. An interesting thing about loaf pans is that there is not one uniform size, but rather a bunch of crazy sizes that are only slightly different from each other. This makes it very annoying when developing a recipe because differently sized pans require slightly different baking times and produces differently sized loaves. Our winning pan measures 8½ by 4½ inches, so if your pan is larger the bread will bake more quickly and look a little flat.
I was never one for gooey cookies or brownies fresh out of the oven (they just taste raw to me) but I know they’re popular. For those of you who like to skimp on cooling times, do me a small favor and let this bread cool at least little before you dig in. Wait until it is no longer piping hot, or else it will have a gummy texture. Best banana bread in the world. I mean it, and I’m no pushover.