Tuesday, November 3, 2009

tranquility, friendship and banana bread

A few Saturdays ago, desiring a bit of tranquility and peace, Sarah, Nick, Taylor and I made plans to gather that evening at Nick and Taylor's house to sink into the couches in the front room of the house with glasses of red wine in our hands, reading and writing by the glow of candles and the dim light of a lamp, classical music swirling about us and brisk fall winds blowing on the other side of the windows.

It really was a fabulous idea.

The only thing that could make the evening more lovely, I felt, would be some kind of baked good. But not just any old baked good. Banana bread. With dark chocolate and bits of crystallized ginger.

I had long ago discovered this recipe both on Molly Wizenberg's blog and in her book, and it seemed it would be a fitting addition to the evening... a bread made dense and sweet with ripe bananas, slivers of chocolate melting in each bite and spicy undertones of ginger throughout. Yes, this would be perfect indeed.

I always have this desire to bake for gatherings with friends. A key element of my food philosophy (more on this another day) is the idea of nourishment. I love preparing food for others because it is an incredibly basic way of showing them I care for them by investing time and energy into something that nourishes their bodies and souls... enabling life to continue. For whatever reason, I find this sense of caring for others through food particularly strong when baking, maybe because we knead bread with our hands or because dessert is an "unnecessary" luxury or because of Christmas cookies and homemade bread with soup on cold days and freshly baked cookies as only mothers make them.

But whatever the reason, I wanted to bake banana bread.

I whipped up the batter for the bread at home, borrowed a pan from those gracious men as I so often do, slid the borrowed pan into the borrowed oven and joined my friends in the living room, pulling a blanket around my toes and writing away in my journal.

An hour later, when our quiet reading/writing endeavors had transitioned into conversation about the environment and saving the world (as per the usual) and the house had filled with the sweet aroma of the baking bread, Taylor and I ventured into the kitchen.

I pulled the bread out of the oven. It looked lovely, the top lightly browned and cracked. I placed it on the stovetop to cool for a few minutes as Taylor and I talked. As we had no cooling rack (and I don't judge; we don't have a cooling rack in my kitchen either!), we decided to tip it out onto those metal grates over the burners on the stovetop instead. Still talking cheerily with Taylor, I tipped the bread.

Although what happened next is still a blur, I do know for certain that it was not pretty nor graceful.

The bottom of the loaf stayed firmly attached to the pan. The middle was goop and oozed around the more solid pieces that had broken off, seeping out of the pan and between the grates of the stovetop.

Remember what I said about nourishment and caring for others through baking? In that moment, my heart dropped. The symbol of my affection for my friends was spreading across the stovetop in a sticky, oozing mess.

I stood frozen, holding the hot pan in its halfway-tipped position and making various noises of helplessness and distress. Taylor was the first to move, and I quickly emerged from my paralysis to join him in awkwardly attempting to salvage the part of the loaf that remained in one piece, to return the goop and solid bits of bread to the pan, to clean the stovetop, to do something. After several unsuccessful attempts at preservation, Taylor grabbed a spoon from the counter.

I stood in front of the oven, mournfully staring at the situation before me. My bread was ruined. And ugly. My friends' stovetop was a mess. I was an awful nourish-er.

And then I noticed that Taylor, done trying to salvage or clean, had begun eating the gooey insides of the bread off of the stovetop with his spoon. He was grinning. I paused for just a moment. Then, laughing, I reached for a spoon and joined him.

We piled the broken and soft pieces of bread back into the pan and returned to the living room with a stack of spoons. Sitting around the low coffee table on our knees, the four of us and David, another of Nick and Taylor's housemates, polished off the entire loaf of bread, the hot, melted chocolate dribbling from our spoons.

Nick told me confidently that it was better this way than it could have possibly been otherwise.

It could have been a disaster. If I had been alone in my house, making something to take with me to a dinner gathering or a party, I would have been depressed and disappointed. But instead, the moment of panic was brief, and as soon as I saw Taylor with spoon in hand, I knew it would be fine. More than fine.

You see, my friends, this is part of the purpose that community serves, to take an event that might otherwise be construed as disaster and make it into beauty.

And my love is messy anyway. This misshapen and unattractive loaf of bread probably offered a more true metaphor than any perfectly textured scone or delicately arched cake ever could.

I knew immediately that I wanted to share this story and this recipe with you here, but I also wanted to attain more conventional success with the recipe before posting it. Various factors may have contributed to the outcome of that first attempt: a very thick pan, the particular combination of flours I used or the amount of time I waited before removing the bread from the pan. In my second attempt, I used a slightly different version of the recipe, a thinner pan and a simpler combination of flours, and I waited a good 10-15 minutes before attempting removal from the pan.

This second attempt produced a (more traditionally) beautiful and equally (?) delicious loaf of bread. Cut into thick slices, seven of us shared it, moaning at its goodness (yet exercising enough restraint this time to even leave a good-sized piece for me to enjoy the following day). But if I'm being completely honest, I may have enjoyed it most in its half-solid, half-gooey form, eaten with spoons and joy in disaster converted...

Either way, this is incredible bread. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table (Note: My first attempt more closely followed Molly's earlier version of the recipe, posted here on her blog, Orangette.)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups flour (I used white whole wheat)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 - 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (or chopped up bar of chocolate)
1/3 cup or more chopped crystallized ginger
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (about three large) mashed ripe bananas
1/4 cup plain yogurt (despite a warning in the recipe, I used nonfat, and it worked just fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 9- by 5-inch loaf pan.

Microwave the butter until just melted and set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the chocolate and ginger; mix well to combine. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the mashed banana, yogurt, butter and vanilla and mix well. Pour this wet mixture into the dry one, stirring gently with a spatula until just combined. Make sure all flour is incorporated, but don't worry if the batter is lumpy and thick. Pour the batter into the greased pan.

Bake 50 minutes - 1 hour. The bread should be a deep shade of golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. If loaf is browning too quickly, tent it with tin foil.

Cool the bread in the pan for 5 minutes (or longer, all things considered). Tip it out (preferably onto a wire rack, but make do as necessary). Let it cool, but not for too long, as this bread is wonderful warm!

Bring your friends around, eat and enjoy. And if your bread falls apart or isn't quite done, don't worry. Just get the spoons.

Yield: about 8 servings (that is, if you exercise self-control...)


  1. excellent recanting of an exceptionally wonderful night. and yes, please, more on your food philosophy. i am deeply intrigued.

  2. This was an excellent post, filled with a charming presentation of both community and baking. They felt somewhat similar.

    I will definitely have to try baking this recipe.

    Although I would much prefer to have the recipe for a community of friends like yours.

  3. Now I really want to make banana bread... hey, there are bananas growing in my backyard!

  4. absolutely brilliant. thanks stace!

  5. Thanks for writing Stacy! You are beautiful dear friend.