I have never been much of a banana eater. I have nothing against them--they are cheerful and yellow, kind of like a big, sunny smile. And they're pretty popular. They're easy to eat and they make great kid food. They're a very useful fruit as far as portability and versatility are concerned, they're good travelers and they're just plain fun to eat. Or so I'm told. The Chiquita Banana Company states that the banana is "Quite Possibly the World's Perfect Food." What's more, you can get a banana almost anywhere--even when you stop for a Big Gulp or a tank of gas.
Anyone raised in the South stakes their pedigree on their Nana's banana puddin'. Personally, I like a well-made banana cream pie, either the straight and narrow version (with real pastry and homemade vanilla pudding, of course) or something more tricked out, like the tooth-jangling Banoffee Pie, a recipe I've loved and made for years from the sadly now defunct Gourmet Magazine. Recently, I saw Marcella Valladolid of the Food Network make her Dulce de Leche Banana Cream Pie. It has a base of dulce de leche, cream cheese in the filling and a Mexican cookie crust! And let me say this: even at 7 a.m. I was drooling.
But let's get down to basics: I have a banana tree (sans bananas) in my back yard. This was courtesy of two banana-tree-growing friends, one large and one small, who originally brought me two banana trees, one large and one small, and planted them for me in my back yard. Sadly, one of my friends (the smaller) is no longer with us and sadly, almost poetically, after last winter's brutal icy blasts, one of the banana trees (the smaller) also died. But the surviving tree has produced two babies this year, so I will be able to repopulate (and to share with my surviving friend, who lost all his banana trees last winter). What I love most about banana trees are their elegant, lushly tropical leaves (which I use for cooking fish and tamales) and especially their gorgeous flowers, which I consider to be very exotic and unusual.
I do have a confession to make, however. I absolutely love a good peanut butter and banana sandwich. If it's on good, toothsome wholegrain toast and the [organic] peanut butter (smooth, never chunky) is oozing out of the sides, so much the better. Sadly, this is the only thing I have in common with Elvis (my former childhood crush), except for a penchant for sequins and rhinestones, and it is one of my favorite winter breakfasts accompanied by a steaming mug of tea. Yum!
I keep bananas around mostly because of my husband. He will usually take one with him to eat on the way in to work. We do not eat them fast enough, though, and there are usually one or two bananas that get too freckled and mushy to be enjoyed out of hand. I've taken to throwing them in the freezer over the years, where they get completely brown and frosty, and also delightfully liquidy and intensely sweet when thawed, so that they make great breads and cakes and muffins. I use them in this state quite frequently and will take them out of the freezer all dark and frosty and lay them side by side on a plate where they thaw and I can imagine their little banana lives, traveling by boat to eventually sit proudly, plumply in a supermarket in Texas and then be carried home by me where I will plan what will become of them. My banana post-mortem, if you will.
I know some of you are thinking: she is taking this banana thing much too seriously. Anthropomorphization is a mighty slippery slope. She is confused, has lost touch with reality and needs...Medication.
And this is why dead bananas are worth more to me than those that are cheerfully, relentlessly yellow: because they can be transformed into something much more complex even before they take their little cryogenic naps in my freezer, and because they provide a moist, deep richness to the kinds of things I love to bake in my oven. I guess now is a good time to offer this disclaimer: I am not a pastry chef, but I would be willing to play one on TV. I don't think I could stand up to The Cake Boss, though.
I do have my favorite "dead banana" recipes, mostly from my tattered Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and I'll often add a teaspoon or so of Chef Bernard's Divine Desserts, a 13-spice melange that includes fennel pollen, orange peel, lemon grass and cayenne (and that's just to start!) and has a wonderfully enhancing effect on Fannie's fresh banana cake. But it's really the recipe below that I've been making a lot of lately. It's a really easy, really simple, really moist, really addictive banana cake with a buttery, rich, caramel frosting. Did I mention the chopped pecans on top? It is so addictive, in fact, you might not want to share. You also might want to start culling your supermarket produce department for the bananas they take off the counter and sell in large quantities in paper bags. You know, the ones that are cultivating the fruitfly colonies...But please don't mention this to my husband. He already has enough trouble with the fact that I use overripe fruit and sour milk to bake with...
Banana Sheet Cake with Caramel Frosting
1 cup butter or good quality margarine (such as Fleischman's)
1/2 cup water
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup mashed overripe bananas (I use 2 large or 3 small)
Caramel Frosting (recipe follows)
1/2 to 1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Grease and flour a jellyroll pan.
3. In a medium saucepot, bring butter and water to a boil. Set aside.
4. Combine flour and sugar.
5. Pour hot water/butter over flour and sugar and stir lightly.
5. Add eggs, baking soda, sour cream and vanilla extract; mix well.
7. Add mashed bananas.
8. Mix well and pour into a greased and floured jelly roll pan.
9. Bake for 20 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched.
10. Frost with Caramel Frosting and sprinkle with chopped pecans while still warm.
3 Tbs. butter
4 1/2 Tbs. half and half or heavy cream (have more on hand for thinning)
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar, divided
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1. In a saucepot over medium heat, melt the butter.
2. Mix in half and half and brown sugar.
3. Bring to boil and cook for 1 minute.
4. Remove from heat and whisk in 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, beating out lumps as well as you can.
5. Cool slightly, then whisk in remaining 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar and vanilla extract.
6. Drizzle in more half and half and whisk if frosting is too thick. The desired texture is similar to melted cheese.
7. Frost entire sheet cake while frosting is still warm and sprinkle with nuts, if desired.
May your sweet tooth be satisfied.