Heroic Banana Bread

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Why has this seemingly innocuous baked good been designated as “heroic”,  you wonder? Because it saved my life. Well, it didn’t really, but it was the first thing I ate after a near-death experience, so it qualifies as a life-saving confection. A few years ago, my family and I did what families ’round here do: we went vacationing in the neighbouring town of Guelph. We spent most of our vacation kayaking and barbequing and tossing about frisbees. On the final day of our visit, my uncle had found a local gorge nestled within a small patch of population in Guelph, which offered water-tubing. If you’ve never been water-tubing before, it’s a pseudo-sport in which you ride on top of an inner tube (or donut) on water. (The variation of this is being towed in said donut through the water by a watercraft, but I opted for the more docile version thinking, at the time, that it was a safer bet.)

The gorge we were to ride through was a deep narrow passage in the earth’s surface that was worn by running water and had steep rocky sides. The river that ran through it (hehe, I love 90’s movie references) was to carry us on choppy waters, down to our final destination (20th century movie references aren’t bad either). So I found myself situated in a town within a town — a sub-town if you will — getting suited up to ride a tube down a narrow, choppy river, purely for recreation. We suited up and then were asked to sign a liability waiver that was unusually long.  I scanned the four-page document, squinting to read the fine print with my litigious mind racing with questions and heavy with doubt. I glanced over at my father who was standing nearby watching everyone get suited up. He had that all too familiar look on his face. You know the look that says, “I’m not going to tell you what to do but you know what I think you should do.”  Despite his forewarning, I signed my life away and happily selected the fateful water tube which I would almost die ride on.

We walked for about 15 minutes down a steep and winding foot path to get down to the gorge. The waters were choppy and wild and I was elated at the thought of riding the ‘wave’ down the river. I settled into my tube and managed to pass over the first rough patch of water. As I continued on my journey, the water began to pick up speed and crash against the rocks. I carelessly bounced about in my water tube, enjoying the ride until I was abruptly jolted forward out of the tube. We were passing over an inclement bit of water rushing over a bed of rocks and my leg must have caught on a rock. I was catapulted forward, hitting the side of my head on a rock. The water was circling rapidly and I found myself underwater, flailing my arms about trying to reach the water’s surface. Each time I managed to push my head about the water’s surface, I was sucked back down by a watery vortex of sorts. Every time I reached the surface, I caught a glimpse of one of the family friends who was riding next to me earlier. She was further down, past the choppy waters yelling, “Oh my God, are you okay?!” I heard her voice a number of times before finally being sucked back into the water. I remained calm until the moment I realized I wouldn’t be able to emerge from the water from that area. I allowed myself to sink down into the river and be carried with the water to safer, less choppy waters. I was panicked the entire time thinking about the impact my head made with the rock, wondering if my head was really injured, and terrified that I might pass out before I was able to pull myself out of the water. The water carried me further down and then I fought again to get to the surface. Frustratingly, the water was still choppy as I tried to pull myself up. Now bear in mind, this all occurred within a few panic-stricken seconds. It may be important to note here that moments before my close encounter with the other side, a fellow water-tuber was quickly ushered back up the long winding footpath  because she had dislocated her elbow on a jagged rock as she descended down the river — a cautionary tale which I clearly paid no heed to.

Finally, I was pulled out of the water by a group of burly (and heroic) Korean teenagers who were walking along the bank. I was literally pulled by my limbs across the very same jagged rocks on which the lady, who dislocated her elbow, met her fate. As a result of their rescue attempt, I was left with my back bloodied and my skin shredded from the middle of my back down to my waist. I was thankful (but rattled) and shook it off. I did what any normal person would do in that situation (note that “normal person” is defined in my world as an intrepid, type A, risk-taking, foolhardy individual)…I continued on my water-tubing journey; partly because I was in no shape to make the trek back up that steep footpath, and partly in an attempt to heal my bruised ego. I walked along the bank down to where the waters were less choppy and continued along the rest of the water trail, desperately holding on to my water tube with each bump. I made it to the end of the river and managed to walk up along the bank as small amounts of blood continued to pool and settle along my waistline. I couldn’t make it up the hill with the rest of the group without wincing with every step so, my cousins and I hopped onto the rear fender of the pick-up truck of a generous soul who was passing by and offered to give us a ride to the top of the hill.

When we reached the top, I was shaken and a little worse for wear but I shook off the injury like it was nothing worth writing home about, and we headed back to the hotel room. In my wearied state, I managed to shower and slather on about two tubes of Polysporin.

Anyway, let me reel it back in to banana bread. After we left the hotel, we went in search of a Dairy Queen restaurant to pick up an ice cream cake in honour of me cheating death (actually, it was for my mum’s birthday, but whatever). On our way there, we stopped off at a coffee shop to get a hit of caffeine. We had been in the water for hours so, naturally, I was famished, and nothing quite whets the appetite like the prospect of death. There was a display case full of various baked treats and fancy sweet goodies but my eyes fell to a large loaf of banana bread. I asked for a slice along with my coffee. In hindsight, I should have chosen something poetic and decadent to match the poignant circumstances of my ordeal, but instead, I chose a comforting slice of good ol’ banana bread. From that day on, banana bread has forever been connected, in my mind, with that harrowing life experience.

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I’ve eaten so much bad, overly-dense and mushy banana bread in my life that a good banana bread recipe really is worthy of reverence. I’ve tweaked and re-tweaked my recipe more times than I care to admit, and well, this is the crowning glory of banana bread recipes. Perhaps I’m taking great liberties in calling this a ‘bread’ when it really is in fact a ‘cake’. Bread is typically characterized as a leavened food whose basic constituent is flour, whereas this ‘bread’ has a tender, moist crumb, similar to a cake. But let’s not split hairs here. Somehow, calling it a ‘bread’ gives you carte blanche to enjoy as much as you’d like without the guilt of eating ‘cake’.

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This recipe (like any good staple recipe) has a bit of wiggle room. You may not always have buttermilk and sour cream at home and often don’t want to buy both for one recipe, so you can increase the amount of buttermilk you use and omit the sour cream all together. If you only have two large bananas, don’t sweat it: the recipe can be made with 2 bananas as well but the banana flavour is much more subtle. Be sure to use very ripe bananas — one’s whose skin is soft to the touch and is beautifully speckled with black dots. Finally, you can add as much or as little as the toffee bits, shredded coconut, and crushed banana chips. I just think they add some textural interest to an otherwise plain cake. The coconut toasts up beautifully as it bakes and the banana chips add to the continuity of the banana flavours, and are crunchy and delicious to boot!

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1/2 cup (4 ounces)     butter, softened
3/4 cups (170 grams)     white sugar
3/4 cups (150 grams)     brown sugar, slightly packed
1/4 cup (2 ounces or 60 ml)     canola or vegetable oil
2     eggs
1 tablespoon (15 ml)     vanilla extract
2-3     large very ripe bananas, mashed
1/3 cup (83 ml)     sour cream
1/3 cup (83 ml)     buttermilk (or 2/3 cup if you don’t have sour cream)
2 1/2 cups  (312 grams)   unsifted cake flour
1 teaspoon     salt
1/2 teaspoon     baking soda
1/4 teaspoon     baking powder
1/2 cups (55 grams)    semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
1/2 cup (55 grams)     walnuts, divided
1/4 cup (28 grams)     shredded coconut (optional)
1/4 cup (28 grams)     toffee bits (optional)
1/2 cup (55 grams)    banana chips, crushed (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C).  Lightly grease a 9×13 cake pan and line with parchment so the parchment hangs over the longer sides of the pan. Dust the sides which aren’t covered with parchment with flour. (Alternatively, you can skip the parchment altogether and just butter and flour the inside of the entire pan.)  [Note: this can also be made in a 10-inch bundt cake pan, mini loaf pans, or in a cupcake pan by simply increasing the baking time]

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the oil and mix again. Stir in the eggs one at a time, beating well with each addition, then stir in the vanilla. Continue to beat until the mixture is pale and fluffy and doubled in volume.

In a small bowl, mash the bananas with a fork until they are pureed. Add the mashed bananas along with the sour cream and buttermilk to the butter mixture. Don’t be alarmed if the mixture looks curdled (see above photo). In another bowl, sift the cake flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Stir the flour mixture into the banana mixture. Fold in 1/4 cup of the chocolate chips and 1/4 cup of the walnuts. Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and sprinkle with the remaining chocolate chips and walnuts as well as the banana chips, toffee bits and coconut, if using. If you’re making your banana bread in a bundt pan, sprinkle the bottom of the pan with walnuts, chocolate chips, crushed banana chips, toffee bits, and coconut and then pour the batter over it, so that when the bread is inverted after baking, the top is speckled with all of the crunchy little bits.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes for a 9×13 pan, 45 to 50 minutes for a bundt pan, 15-18 minutes for mini loaf pans and 12-14 minutes for cupcakes. The top(s) should be golden brown and spring back when lightly touched. Remove the pan(s) from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before removing them from the pan. Cool completely before slicing.

One thought on “Heroic Banana Bread

  1. A fellow foodie friend, Naveen, had a great question regarding buttermilk and cake flour substitutions. (We will soon be posting a comprehensive page which will include common substitution questions as well as conversions and calculation tables for various ingredients, but, in the interim, I’ll respond here.)

    How to make Cake Flour with All-Purpose Flour: For every one cup of all-purpose flour, you’ll need two tablespoons of cornstarch (or ‘cornflour’ as it is often called in other parts of the world). Measure two level tablespoons of cornstarch and place in a one-cup measure. Fill the rest of the cup with all-purpose flour and level off. Sift the flour mixture into a bowl and continue to sift 2-3 times to ensure the flour and cornstarch are completely incorporated.

    Buttermilk vs Sour Cream: The sour cream and buttermilk are fairly interchangeable in this recipe so if you don’t have buttermilk on hand you can simply add enough milk to the additional sour cream to achieve the consistency of buttermilk or you can create your own buttermilk at home by placing 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or fresh lemon juice in a measuring cup and adding enough milk to make 1 cup of liquid in total. Stir to combine and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes (The mixture will begin to curdle and thicken). If you can make your own buttermilk it is preferred to watering down the additional sour cream because the acidified milk will help activate the leaveners in the recipe to create a more tender, lighter crumb.

    I hope that answers your questions!

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