Table Ready
By Stephanie Rosenbaum


ANYONE WHO'S EVER bought a bunch of bananas has been faced with the overripe-banana problem. You wait a day or two for the green to disappear, you take one for lunch, slice another on your cereal ... and by the end of the week there is always one left, rapidly blackening and about two days over the acceptable-banana-ripeness line. That's where banana bread comes in. Just as zucchini bread only exists as a sort of edible Humane Society for overproductive gardens, so banana bread rescues all of the too-squishy fruit that went brown too fast.

Most people are a little finicky about bananas themselves – this one's too green, that one's too spotted – but banana bread, sweet and comforting, neatly dispenses with all of that anxiety. Those annoying, clingy little strings, the inevitable wet brown bruise at the bottom: all dissolved into a happy, toasty mélange of butter, sugar, and flour. There's a certain smug thriftiness to banana bread, too. I have no shame about taking other people's black bananas home. Because for the best banana bread, you want an absolutely, wildly overripe banana, the kind no one would think of eating anymore, one whose skin comes off in thin strips and the inside is more ochre than yellow.

Like bananas, banana bread can be so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Wrapped in plastic on café counters, sliced and sold at bake sales, pushed over near the cookies at potlucks: what everyone likes about it is easy to forget. It wasn't until I suddenly smelled the aroma of buttery hot-from-the-oven banana bread where I least expected it that I was reminded of how good it can be. It was a freezing-cold day in Paris, at the Sunday morning organic market on the boulevard Raspail. Among the stacks of leeks and pumpkins and lavender soap, the whiff of fresh baking wrapped around like a hug. It wasn't from the guys frying up huge, sloppy, potato-carrot pancakes, or the other guys dispensing Moroccan mint tea and hot chocolate. No, the smell came from a big open truck fitted with a convection oven and bakery racks, run by a farmerish-looking guy speaking fluent French and selling steaming hot oatmeal cookies, English muffins, and banana bread. It turned out he was Michael Healey, an American businessman turned baker, who had a house in a small village in the Loire Valley and came up once a week to the market. His real passion was his handmade whole-wheat English muffins; the banana bread and brownies were, you could tell, just the candy to please the customers who hadn't evolved to English-muffin level. And he did do a pretty brisk English-muffin trade, I'll admit. His stand was mobbed all morning, but really, it was the chocolate-and-banana smell, utterly mesmerizing on that bleak winter day, and also because even the French won't turn down a good brownie, or a hot little loaf of banana bread. I spent a lot of time in tearooms on that trip, escaping the pelting rain and hail outside, and every place had "crumble pomme" (apple crumble) on the menu, often alongside chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and "gateau carotte" (carrot cake).

Good as Healey's hot miniloaves were, especially on that freezing February morning, I still maintain that the most perfect recipe comes from my mother's 1970-ish edition of the New York Times Cookbook, under the heading "Banana Tea Bread." It may very well be in the current version of the cookbook today; banana bread is not a recipe to go out of fashion. There are healthier, whole-wheat-and-honey versions out there, I'm sure, but they are not for me. Heavy, gummy bricks of banana bread are, alas, something of a staple in health food restaurants. This recipe produces a classic tea bread, easily sliced, perfect for breakfast (lightly toasted with cream cheese and apricot jam) and dessert (strangely compatible with chocolate ice cream). It keeps well and can be frozen. With this recipe around, you'll never waste a banana again. You might even charm the French.

Perfect Banana Bread

13/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/3 cup butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

2 eggs

3 extraripe, brown-skinned bananas (approximately 1 cup, mashed)

1/2 cup walnut or pecan pieces, toasted (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan. Sift or mix dry ingredients together; set aside. Cream butter and sugar together, beating until smooth. Beat in eggs. Using a fork or your hands, squish bananas until thoroughly mashed. Stir 1/3 of flour mixture into butter mixture. Mix lightly. Add 1/3 of mashed bananas. Stir. Repeat, alternating flour and banana, until all ingredients are mixed together. Stir in walnuts, if using. Spoon into a loaf pan. Bake for one hour and 10 minutes, until the loaf is deep golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a rack.

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June 4, 2003