10 December 2014

Best (whole grain) Banana Bread

I've made a few banana breads over the years, and thought they've turned out *ok,* a few pretty good, despite being labeled in my head as a fickle endeavor. Bananas ripe enough?  Pull it out too soon? Right moisture? And the crux: is there something just flat about it? And that, my friends is the most dreary issue...the fact that the bread was an *ok* means to an end for blackening bananas. First-world problems in a baking enthusiast's mind that can simply be rectified by choosing a good recipe. My quest for a better bread begins with looks. I've noticed in some bakery display cases, the banana bread tends to be a lot darker (though not burnt) around the outside than the average home loaf, and the banana aspect evident through dark little threads inside the slice, not a yellow chunk in sight. 

When I cut into this bread, I was happy to see those threads. When I knew it was done, besides the finger spring-back and toothpick test, the top was browned. And the taste? Spot-on. Sweet but not overly-so, with a bit of nuttiness from the whole grain flour, and with a tight yet soft crumb neither cakey nor dense. And, banana-y. This recipe, from Flour Bakery, has been touted over the web for its consistent delivery and specific (though not difficult) preparation, and chances are it's not news to you, and yet, in a banana-baked world, we must hone in, because there is simply too much out there. I'm sticking to this.

The recipe calls for egg to be first whipped with sugar for a few-yes-a few-minutes, this is what aerates the batter. Then you slowly pour in the oil, like you're making an aioli. Your banana, vanilla and just the smallest bit of creme fraiche or sour cream get blended in and finally, your flour. I only made a few changes to Joanne Chang's recipe, which I thought worked well for it. Banana bread can typically afford a swap of some whole grain flour without sacrifice, so I threw in some Graham flour, and I cut the sugar down by about two tablespoons. When a recipe comes from a bakery, you can assume that it probably will be sweet enough. My other changes were to make mini loaves instead of a big loaf, for less oven time, and to use thawed frozen bananas. More information on this: it's not only economical to freeze bananas but actually good for the bread, provided you thaw smartly. 

When you thaw frozen bananas, at room temperature in a bowl for a few hours, they will release a lot of liquid. This might make you feel like you're headed into the wrong territory but fear not; all you have to do is pour that liquid into a saucepan and reduce it; what you're left with is a nice spoonful of banana "extract" that will heighten the flavor. Add that back into your banana flesh and proceed to mash lightly. I didn't have any walnuts so I skipped them and opted for a few sprinkled almonds on top. I love it lightly toasted, with a smidge of cream cheese and honey on top. As I write this, I'm debating whether to freeze the second loaf or keep it out for another day of toasting. Hmm, actually, that's not a very hard choice...

Banana Graham Bread
Adapted from Flour by Joanne Chang
1 2/3 cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour (I used 1c (125g) AP, 2/3 c (80g) Graham flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (I used Diamond Crystal or use half as much sea salt)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (230 grams) sugar (I used scant cup ~190 grams and found that fine)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (100 grams) canola or other flavourless oil
1 1/2 cups/340 grams mashed very ripe bananas
2 tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream (I used creme fraiche)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped (optional- I omit)

Place rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325°F (165°C). Butter and flour your pan of choice.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment, or a handheld mixer, beat together the sugar and eggs on medium speed for about 5 minutes for the stand mixer, and about 8 minutes for a handheld mixer; or until light and fluffy.

With the machine on low speed, slowly drizzle in the oil. Do not pour the oil in all at once. Add it slowly so it has time to incorporate into the eggs and doesn't deflate the air you have just beaten into the batter. Adding the oil should take about 1 minute.

Add the bananas, creme fraiche/sour cream, and vanilla, then continue to mix on low speed just until combined.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture and nuts just until thoroughly combined. No flour streaks should be visible and the nuts should be evenly distributed.Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours for a 9x5-inch loaf or 45-50 minutes for four 5x3 or three 6x3-inch loaves; or until golden brown on top and the cake springs back when you press it. If your finger sinks when you poke the bread, bake a little longer.

-Weigh ingredients if possible-especially for the bananas. Bake long enough. I let my mini-loaves go for 50 minutes. A spring-back test is good. Press your finger into the top of the loaf, the dough should spring back and the top be a nice golden brown, not at all doughy. A toothpick should come out clean. Cool completely in the pan and then more on the rack. The bread will absorb itself even more as it sits wrapped overnight. Joanne says room temp two days, freezer 2 weeks.  

-Recipe may be halved for 2 mini loaves, what I did. Just beat the eggs for a minute less in the beginning

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