The Thelonious Monk of Banana Breads

Life would be so easy if I just craved Kale.

Unfortunately, the restaurant I worked at as a teenager used the stuff to garnish the salad bar, wrapping the bright and sturdy leaves around plastic tubs full of garbanzo beans and jello squares and soupy ranch dressing.  In retrospect this clearly strikes me as a wanton waste of such a noble vegetable.

Still, if it’s three AM and I’m standing in front of my fridge in my pyjamas ready to gnaw off my arm… or if it’s 830 PM and I’m lying face down on my couch with my work shoes off my heels but still technically on because I don’t have the energy to kick them off due to spending the previous 11 hours at work being yelled at by an entire corporate supply chain… I don’t want f***ing kale.

This latest effort to allay my comfort-food cravings reached all the way back into the murky paleolithic prehistory of my baking – before I understood gluten and fat types and pH and not overmixing quickbread and such things.  Back to one of the first things I ever baked.

The Moosewood Cookbook is the first “Real” cookbook I ever really poured through and felt energized by.   I bought the 15th anniversary edition in the fall of 1993, at the beginning of my last year of college.  I had never really “read” a cookbook before, or even really considered the fact that any cookbook, let alone one with squiggly little handwritten pages,  could be such a powerful tool for grappling with larger ideas of  “where our food comes from.”

And looking it over again over the last few days, it’s interesting to see how much the revised version was such a product of the times, yet has an ethos that stands up remarkably well.  Fat was the bugaboo then, and the author, Molly Katzen, took pains to mention that many recipes had been revised to reduce the fat content.

Yet, as I mentioned, it’s surprisingly modern, trying to put the vegetables front and center and find clever ways to highlight their freshness and vitality, all the while taking note of larger issues of our diet, our food chain, and our planet.

Anyway, there are several recipes that are still my standards.  My standard choice when I entertain vegetarian friends is to make the tabouleh, falafel and pita bread and beg they don’t bring hummus (not a fan).  I have made the feta-walnut dip many times and, of course, my favorite…

This banana bread.

This will be the only banana bread recipe I ever need. There may be others worth trying.  Orangette’s certainly qualifies (I made this about three years ago and it was quite good), and this one with a bananas foster topping looks interesting.  Having tasted this today reminds me why this is my standard.

Now, this recipe might strike you as dischordant, a petulant child striking five random piano keys at once to create a painful, brash sound that has no harmony or balance.  You will notice banana, coffee, lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg and almond extract.

Yet even if you look at these notes individually and are convinced they won’t make sense as a whole, the final product brings them together masterfully.  You taste them all, a little bit, but you are never once confused about what you are eating – the notes provide more texture than disharmony.  Instead of this child creating musical chaos, you have a master who despite sounds you might have thought out of place – whose  fingers seem to land  on exactly the right keys at exactly the right time.

I am not stretching this analogy, btw.  Listen once (for me) to Thelonious Monk’s Alone in San Francisco and you will know what i mean.

And I don’t mean to overcomplicate things or imply the flavors here are at all wild.  Just deep.  This is a REALLY good banana bread.

Moosewood Cookbook Banana Bread

3 Sticks softened butter (forget what I said about fat content)

1 3/4 C brown sugar
4 eggs

1/4 C lemon juice
2 1/2 t vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
1 t orange rind
4 Cups flour (I used 1/2 cup whole wheat for extra tooth)
1 t salt
1/2 t baking soda
1 T baking powder
1/2 t nutmeg
2 t cinnamon
2 C pureed ripe banana steeped in C strong black coffee (that’s about 4 bananas)
OPTIONAL: 3/4 C chopped pecans or walnuts

Oven to 350.  Grease 2 standard-sized loaf pans

Cream the butter and sugar in your stand mixer or in a large bowl.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.  When mixture is fluffy, add the lemon juice, orange rind and the extracts.

Sift together the dry ingredients.  Add to the butter mixture alternately with the banana puree, in thirds, mixing just enough to combine… do NOT overmix.  Fold in optional ingredients if this is your thing.

Spread the batter evenly between the pans, bake for 40 to 50 minutes until a probe into the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool before devouring: ten minutes in the pan, and another hour or so on a rack.  I know this sounds difficult, but you can do it.

12 thoughts on “The Thelonious Monk of Banana Breads

  1. Loved this post – I keep hearing about the Moosewood Cookbook… I might have to check it out!!!

  2. Thanks so much for visiting, Em! I appreciate the kind words. Do check out the cookbook, in addition to a lot of fantastic recipes (I forgot to mention the eyes-roll-back-in-the-skull brownies), it’s thoughtful and insightful.

  3. I am marking this banana bread to try. Banana bread is sort of like chocolate chip cookies – I don’t think you can ever try enough new recipes! I have heard many things about the Moosewood cookbook – I’m going to have to check it out. If you give my Bananas Foster banana bread a try I’d love to hear what you think!

  4. Hi Michelle!

    Some friends of mine turned me on to your blog a few weeks ago and the bananas foster recipe just stunned me – Next time I do one, I promise to use yours!

  5. Great anaolgy to Thelonious Monk. There’s a reason why the man and his work have woven themselves into music’s fabric…

    Moosewood was the first veg cookbook I bought, when I went through that particular rite of passage; I returned to my carnivorous self and then was forced back again, that time relying upon Ms Katzen’s squiggles for suggestions…more as a diving board than anything else.

    Now I occasionally meader back to her work, when I’m in a rut or just looking for inspiration.

    Fabulous post.

    j

  6. I love the Monk analogy and it’s a fantastic recipe. Moosewood and the Linda McCartney cookbook are two that I return to time and again.

    I believe the lemon juice might be missing from your ingredient list though?

  7. Jasmine,

    Thank you for visiting and for your kind words.

    I still do the same thing as far as returning to old cookbooks when in a rut. Sometimes these recipes are old friends who always welcome you back, no matter how long it’s been.

  8. Ah, your post ripples along quite like The Man himself , nice! You got me thinking of pulling out Moosewood, yet again, even though I’ve ( gasp) never made a banana bread in my life. Great cookbook.

  9. dear favorite dork,
    god bless. you had me pretty convinced to make this, and soon, based on just the 2nd paragraph alone (oh how i relate) and then you went on to talk about your veggie friends and what you make for them (how can you not like hummus?) and then the analogy with the piano keys. sold. then buyer’s remorse when i read the ingredients. 3 sticks of butter?! jeez, was the author dating Paula Deen back then?!

    further reading of the recipe mollified me, that steeping of mushy bananas in coffee intrigues me for some odd reason. that’s a whole lot of emotions for me in just one blog post!

    there has got to be a way to reduce that much butter, no?

  10. katrina – thanks as always, it’s not every day I get accused of rippling. Is it by choice you’ve never made one, or is it just happenstance?

    Lan –
    There are worse things than hummus, to be sure. It’s just not my favorite thing.

    And I’ve given your butter question some thought this afternoon, and I think that if you dial back the butter to two a MERE two sticks, add in three additional crushed (but unsoaked) bananas, and perhaps some walnuts, it might compensate. Bananas do have a unctuousness that can often “feel” like fat, dontcha think?

    PS let us all know what you did with the squash.

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