This banana bread is based on a series of diversions from a recipe I used to make by rote: Pamela’s Banana Bread in Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s book, Homebaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the Globe. Like Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain, which I celebrated last post, this is another totally gorgeous baking book, that takes an eclectic journey into breads, cookies, cakes, pies and tarts.
There are new takes on old themes, and old takes on old themes, and Pamela’s Banana Bread is one of the new takes. Everyone’s got a banana bread recipe lying around somewhere. Usually it’s from someone’s grandmother, and as I’ve experienced them, quite cakey. This bread takes its method from a Persimmon Bread in a classic cookbook called Hoppin John’s Lowcountry Cooking. Because I’m yet to lay my hands on a copy, I’m not sure what part of the method is taken from this book, maybe the large quantity of fruit that’s used in the place of eggs? but the result is clear: a dense, velvet textured loaf full to the brim with banana flavour.
I’ve substituted in some wholegrain flour to accentuate the bread’s density and texture. Sometimes I use wholegrain wheat, and sometimes spelt. Also, I use raw sugar instead of white sugar throughout. (I hardly ever use white sugar anymore- only when I think the molasses content of other sugars will tarnish the pure flavour of what I’m making, like strawberry jam, or if it will have a dramatic effect on the texture, like in meringues.)
The original recipe uses shredded coconut and rum for flavouring, but I’ve recently moved away from this combination, partly because I never find shredded coconut that’s fresh enough for my liking (or at least, it starts to stale quite quickly in my pantry. I have to remember, next time, to store it in the freezer), and partly because the flavour combination isn’t my favourite.
In their place I’ve added toasted hazelnuts, vanilla, vanilla vodka and a little bit of thyme (which gives a bit of mystery to the bread’s background notes). But feel free to try out a few different combinations in place of these elements. I think banana, walnut, lemon zest and limoncello would be nice to try. Or what about banana, almond, amaretto and dark chocolate?
Finally and importantly, one of the nicest things about this bread is its lasting crust. This is care of a good handful of raw sugar sprinkled onto the breads before they cook. Enjoy!
Banana Hazelnut Bread
- 2 cups plain unbleached flour
- 2 cups wholewheat flour or spelt flour
- 1 ½ tsp baking soda
- a pinch of salt (if using unsalted butter)
- 250g salted butter, slightly softened at room temperature (but nowhere near greasy)
- 2 cups raw castor sugar
- 3 cups pureed overripe cavendish bananas (around 8 good sized bananas)*
- 1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tsp vanilla paste or 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla essence
- 3 tbsp (these are ‘American’ tablespoons = 45ml) vanilla vodka, or plain vodka and increase the vanilla essence to 2 tsp
- 1 ½ cups toasted hazelnuts, partially deshelled and roughly chopped.**
Butter two medium to large loaf tins and preheat your oven to 180C (350F).
Sift the flours and baking soda together (making sure there are no lumps of baking soda by crushing it through your fingers first) into a medium size bowl. Any leftover floury bits stir into the bowl with a whisk or fork.
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer (or do it by hand, if you’re looking for a bit of exercise or don’t have a mixer!), until it is light and creamy, like in the above photo (around 8 minutes on high).
Now, turning the mixer onto its lowest setting, stir in the thyme, vanilla and alcohol, and then alternatively, about half a cup flour and then half a cup banana puree until the whole lot is just combined. Don’t over stir it or take time between additions.
Fold the hazelnuts into the batter with a spatula. The motion to use is a stroke around the edge of the bowl with the spatula, and then one along the bottom and up through the middle. That sounds confusing, I know, but check out this video if you’ve never folded anything before.
Now pour and spoon the batter evenly into the two baking pans and smooth the surface with the back of your spoon a little (just so that the batter is all the same depth the length of the pan, not so that you have a perfectly smooth surface). Take a handful of raw sugar and sprinkle it liberally all over the surface of the batter, before placing both tins, side by side, into the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 20minutes and then turn both pans 180degrees before baking for another 20minutes. At this time, check for readiness by quickly pulling one pan out of the oven and sticking a knife blade into its centre. If the knife blade comes out without any batter sticking to it, it’s ready.
Sit both pans on a bench for 20minutes before turning them out onto a cooling rack (turn them out upside down, into your hand, and then stand them right side up again). Cool completely (or just about- cutting them early will ruin their structure and release their moisture as steam) before slicing and serving with butter, lemon curd, or just plain. Once the loaf is a little stale, slices can be easily grilled or toasted, which makes them even more crusty and delicious!
*the more overripe the cavendish bananas are, the better. I generally stockpile overripe bananas until I have enough for this recipe, by peeling them and then putting them in a plastic bag in the freezer. This is also the perfect starter to a banana smoothie, or any smoothie you want to add some sweetness to. Freeze them in small quantities so that it’s easy to take out one or two for a smoothie if you’re sick of waiting for the banana cake quantity to eventuate! You can puree the bananas in a food processor, or just mash them thoroughly with a potato masher or fork. Use cavendish rather than ladyfingers, because lady fingers can take on floury tones when cooked. I’m not sure what sugar bananas would be like.
**spread the hazelnuts on a baking tray and bake in a 180C oven for around 10, or until you just smell them roasting. They don’t need to be fully toasted, you just want their oils fragrant. Dump them into a clean tea towel, close the tea towel and rub them against each other until most of the loose skin falls away. You don’t need to be too thorough. Pick out the hazelnuts and chop them roughly (ie. every hazelnut should receive at least one chop).