Banana bread has become something of a cliché, a shorthand for a lockdown stereotype, alongside sourdough-tending, jigsaw-obsessing and finishing your novel. I’ve indulged in all of them, and lazily used them all when writing about the pandemic. But today I’m here to offer a defence of banana bread. Banana bread is the go-to bake that has captured the attention of all those sitting out our social-distancing at home. There’s been mocking of those who haven’t baked before suddenly becoming cake-obsessed, eye-rolling at the social media pictures that follow – but to me, banana bread makes complete sense.
It’s a great bake for a new baker: an all-in-one bake, without any temperamental ingredients, baked in a loaf tin which provides structure and rarely requires any kind of icing or lily-gilding. For those who haven’t had the time or inclination to bake before, it doesn’t require fancy equipment or knowledge. And baking itself makes you feel productive, competent, and generous. Baking is, after all, an act of love, even if you’re just baking for yourself. Why wouldn’t you want a little bit of joy and success in today’s uncertain world? So much the better if it comes with added sweetness.
I have made a lot of banana cakes in my time – damp, fudgy, toffee-sweet, and studded with nuts, chocolate, fruit – but banana bread is a slightly different beast. What is the difference then between banana cake and banana bread? Although it’s possible to make yeasted banana ‘breads’, most aren’t yeasted, relying on chemical raising agents, like cakes dow. Both banana breads and cakes usually involve sugar, eggs, butter, and banana cakes tend to be baked in a loaf tin, just like bread. So is it just semantic nonsense? It can be, but I think there is a difference to be drawn: a good banana bread is a bit drier, a little less, well, cakey, than banana cake.
It needs to be a tad more robust and a little less rich because banana bread should be toastable and butterable. For me, a slice of banana bread is best served in a thick slab, warm, slightly crisp, and with a generous slick of salted butter. Even I tend not to butter cake.
For this banana bread (a really excellent banana bread, if I say so myself) I use a combination of muscovado sugar for caramelly depth, and caster sugar, which stops the sponge getting too damp. To temper the sweetness, I brown the butter before using it: melting and then boiling it in a deep pan until it bubbles and seethes, first noisily, and then quietly, before the opaque white foam suddenly becomes speckled with brown. Browning the butter will leave a sediment at the bottom of the pan which you can strain out (the caramelised milk solids), but I prefer to leave them, as they add bags of flavour. Best of all, the butter is added in liquid form – just let it cool a bit, first – and whisked together with the other ingredients, so it’s very simple to throw together, with no need for creaming or other cake-like shenanigans.
The riper your bananas the better: riper bananas just taste sweeter and more banana-y. If you find yourself in the dreadful position of having a hankering for banana bread, but only green, starchy, unripe bananas in your fruit bowl, you can force their hand: throw the bananas in the freezer for half a day, or a hot oven for half an hour. Remove the bananas from the oven when they’re black. If you’ve frozen the bananas, they’ll still look unripe when you remove them, but as they defrost, they’ll blacken and soften.
Makes: 1 large loaf cake (feeds 10)
Takes: 15 minutes
Bakes: 45 minutes
75g light muscovado sugar
50g caster sugar
2 very ripe bananas
225g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon fine salt
- First, brown your butter. Put the butter in a large, deep pan over a high heat, and let it melt. When melted, it will start boiling and bubbling noisily. Watch it carefully, as it will rise up the pan, and you don’t want it to bubble over. After a minute or so, the noise will subside, the bubbles will reduce in size, and be white and opaque, rather than yellow and translucent. At this stage, you will begin to see brown speckles in the foam. Stir the mixture, and the butter below the foam should be dark brown. Remove from the heat and decant into a heatproof bowl, scraping out any brown sediment at the bottom of the pan. Leave until cool, but not solidified.
- Preheat the oven to 165°C and line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with two strips of greaseproof paper.
- Whisk together the cooled, melted brown butter with both sugars and the eggs until thick and moussey. Break the bananas up with a fork and fold them through the mixture. Fold through the self-raising flour, baking powder, ground cinnamon and salt until fully combined, then spoon the mixture into the prepared loaf tin.
- Bake for 45 minutes until the cake is golden, risen and taut and, when pressed gently with a finger, springs back. Cool for fifteen minutes before lifting carefully from the tin and then leave to cool entirely.