“Any 10-year-old can make the typical dry, bland banana bread.
But if you want to make a moist, tender loaf with over-the-top banana flavor,
you need to think like a scientist.” — Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
The above quote was at the beginning of a recipe I came across a few years ago for Ultimate Banana Bread in Cook’s Illustrated magazine. This recipe crams as many bananas as possible into the loaf without sinking its cake-like structure. I’ve never been one who liked bananas nor banana bread, but since there are so many people, including my husband, who enjoy eating banana bread, I wanted to find a recipe that was as delicious to eat, as it was fun and pretty to make. This one piqued my interest. So, when a friend recently asked if I had an “ultimate” recipe for banana bread, this one came to mind. Although my friend described a recipe that she had been using as “the best banana bread recipe”, I decided to try both recipes to see how the two compared—in and out of the kitchen.
Interestingly, they both turned out very well—tender, moist and full of banana flavor. One was a little sweeter, but I liked them both. Each had its own strengths and they just seemed slightly different in taste, texture and appearance. I couldn’t decide which was actually better. I looked more closely at the recipes and then realized the reason for my dilemma—one was for banana bread, the other was actually for banana cake! Ahh, it was then clear.
At first blush, banana bread and banana cake may seem to be the same thing, but they are not. They have subtle differences essential in separating the cakes from the breads. Chock-full of ripe bananas, both have similar tastes, but because of a few slight differences in the recipe, banana cake is generally a bit sweeter and often a little more moist. Banana cake is meant to be more of a dessert, hence the sweeter taste, while banana bread tends to emphasize more of a grain taste with just a hint of sweetness.
The Ultimate Banana Bread was a true show piece, from its embellished, crispy golden crust all the way through to the center’s velvety crumb. The Banana Cake was light, very moist and nicely sweetened. I enjoyed making both recipes and my family and I enjoyed the taste testing. I’m sure to make each of them again. Try them and decide for yourself. I’d love to know if you have a preference!
Ultimate Banana Bread
1¾ cups (8¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon table salt
6 large very ripe bananas, peeled (see note): 5 (about 2¼ pounds) for the bread mixture and 1 to be sliced and placed on top of loaf just before baking.
8 tablespoons (1 Stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 large eggs
¾ cup packed (5¼ ounces) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.
Place 5 bananas in microwave-safe bowl; cover with plastic wrap and cut several steam vents in plastic with a paring knife. Microwave on high power until the bananas are soft and have released liquid, about 5 minutes. Transfer bananas to fine-mesh strainer placed over medium bowl and allow to drain, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes (you should have ½ to ¾ cup liquid).
Transfer liquid to medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until reduced to ¼ cup, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat, stir reduced liquid into bananas, and mash with a potato masher until fairly smooth. Whisk in butter, eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla.
Pour banana mixture into flour mixture and stir until just combined with some streaks of flour remaining. Gently fold in walnuts, if using. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Slice remaining banana diagonally into ¼-inch-thick slices. Shingle banana slices on top of either side of loaf, leaving 1½-inch-wide space down the center to ensure even rise. Sprinkle granulated sugar evenly over loaf.
Bake until toothpick inserted in center of loaf comes out clean, 55 to 75 minutes. Cool bread in pan on wire rack 15 minutes, then remove loaf from pan and continue to cool on wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe Source: Cook’s Illustrated, August 2010
Note: Unless your fine with a bland tasting loaf, don’t even think of making banana bread with anything less than very ripe, heavily speckled (or even black) bananas in this recipe. This recipe can be made using 5 thawed frozen bananas; since they release a lot of liquid naturally, they can bypass the microwaving and go directly into the fine-mesh strainer. Do not use a thawed frozen banana to shingle your loaf; it will be to soft to slice. Instead, simply sprinkle the top of the loaf with sugar. The preferred loaf pan measures 8½ by 4½ inches; if you use a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan, start checking for doneness five minutes earlier than advised in the recipe. The texture is best when the loaf is eaten fresh, but it can be stored (cool completely first), covered tightly with plastic wrap, for up to three days.
I did not add toasted walnuts, but I will next time. Their crunch would provide a nice contrast to the rich, moist crumb.
1/3 cup (2¾ ounces/78 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
1 cup (5½ ounces/155 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup (3 ounces/85 grams) honey
½ cup (2½) ounces/72 grams) packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (8 ounces/228 grams) roughly mashed baby banana (about 5 baby bananas)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
½ cup (4 and 5/8 ounces/130 grams) plain whole-milk yogurt or sour cream
1 cup (5½ ounces/155 grams) semi sweet chocolate chips, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan and set aside.
Sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda and set aside.
Put the butter, honey, sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat the mixture on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, add the bananas and vanilla, beat on medium speed until the mixture looks “broken,” or lumpy, about 1 minute. The bananas should be smashed, with a few small chunks remaining.
Turn speed to medium-low and beat in the egg until incorporated. Turn the speed to low and gradually add the sifted flour mixture, mixing just until no traces of flour remain, about 10 seconds. Add the yogurt and mix until the batter has only a few remaining white streaks, about 5 seconds. Be sure to avoid over mixing. Gently fold in the chocolate chips, if desired.
Transfer the batter to the greased pan. Bake in the center of the oven until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then unmold and cool completely on the rack.
Recipe Source: The Sweet Spot: Asian Inspired Desserts Cookbook
Note: The key to keeping this banana cake light in texture is to avoid overmixing. Yogurt keeps the bread-like texture light and moist, while honey adds a musky sweetness. Baby bananas, enjoyed throughout Southeast Asia, have a distinct flavor and texture that set this cake apart.
I did not add chocolate chips, but I will try that next time.
Whichever you make or prefer, I hope you enjoy!