Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Banana Bread Success

This post is about how Anna is always right about most things, and especially when it comes to baking. Or, as Anna says, just trust Cook's Illustrated. After living with Anna in Brooklyn for almost a year and tasting many a delicious baked good that she whipped up, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of her secret handbook: Baking Illustrated, a cookbook published by the gastronomical science geniuses at Cook's Illustrated.

Seriously, these people know what's up -- because of science! They experiment with recipes, starting with a few different versions and then varying them to figure out just how many eggs you need , or whether sour cream, yogurt, or milk will lend the best flavor and texture. The scientific method at its best.

For example, with their banana bread recipe, they experimented with just how mashed the bananas need to be to keep the batter thick and smooth. Mashed just a bit by hand? Mashed very well? Pureed? They varied mixing the different ingredients in several ways to figure out how to create the best texture and rise in the bread. And, not only do they do all this work for you so you can make awesome food on the first try, they also tell you why it works! Food science is cool!

I chose the banana bread recipe because it's the first recipe in the book - a very good place to start, I figured. But I also have had a hankering for the chocolate chip banana bread made by Blue Sky Bakery, my favorite one in Brooklyn (they sell their baked goods at Grumpy Coffee as well as at their store on 5th Ave and Bergen in Park Slope) and wondered if the Baking Illustrated variation of Banana-Chocolate Bread could measure up.

Of course, despite starting the bread immediately after returing from the grocery store to buy a bittersweet chocolate bar, I realized as I was pouring the batter into the loaf pan that I had forgotten to follow the variation recipe and instead had made plain old banana bread. Fail! I was disappointed for a few minutes and pouted my way around the kitchen, eventually taking a little walk outside to admire the garden, but my spirits were lifted when I came back inside and smelled this delight baking in the oven.

Banana Bread from Baking Illustrated

Greasing and flouring only the bottom of a regular loaf pan causes the bread to cling to the sides and rise higher. If using a nonstick loaf pan, on which the sides are very slick, grease and flour sides as well as the bottom.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 1/4 cups toasted walnuts , chopped coarse
3 very ripe bananas , soft, darkly speckled, mashed well (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 large eggs , beaten lightly
6 tablespoons unsalted butter , melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

(As Baking Illustrated suggests, I had frozen some very ripe bananas and let them thaw on the counter a few hours before baking. They slipped right out of their skins. The fruit seemed a bit juicy, so I removed a bit of the liquid from the bowl before mashing in the other ingredients.)

Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom only of regular loaf pan, or grease and flour bottom and sides of nonstick 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan; set aside.

Combine first five ingredients together in large bowl; set aside. Mix mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with wooden spoon in medium bowl.

Lightly fold banana mixture into dry ingredients with rubber spatula until just combined and batter looks thick and chunky.

Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan; bake until loaf is golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 55 minutes.

Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Um, yeah. This banana bread is good. Really, really good. Moist as can be, strong banana flavor, nutty without being crunchy. So tremendously good. I baked it less than 24 hours ago and there is less than a third of the bread left, after eating a hunk with Erin straight out of the oven and bringing another hunk to American Idol last night. At first I hoped I wouldn't be too sick of banana bread to try the chocolate variation in a couple of weeks; now I'm counting on folks to help me finish the remaining bit of bread as soon as possible so I can whip the chocolate version up, say, later today. Quick! Come over and eat some banana bread! And a big thanks to Anna for showing me the light of Cook's Illustrated - I am now a paying member of their website and plan to subscribe for the magazine as soon as my Bon Appetit subscription ends. As the banana bread shows, tried and tested food science wins out over shiny photos on magazine pages.

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