A recipe for moist, flavorful banana bread is a find. A half-dozen of them, all in one book, is a discovery.
And if they all come together quickly with wonderful results, well, that's a gold mine. "Maida Heatter's Cakes" (Andrews McMeel, $19.99) isn't the kind of book that captures a baker's imagination. There are no pictures, no fancy ingredients, no special techniques -- only recipes. Each begins with a brief introduction, and each is backed by Heatter's reputation as the doyenne of desserts. But a closer look reveals an enticing depth of variety for cakes -- plain, fancy, chocolate, with fruit, with vegetables, with yeast, cheesecakes and baked breads.
One thing is very clear after six days of harried baking: Everything turned out.
Everything was delicious.
The week began with a 10-pound bag of ripe bananas and a mission to try every banana recipe in the book. Recipes were started between 5:30 and 6 p.m. -- after work -- and cooled and refrigerated by 9 p.m. -- an important consideration for working moms.
There was only one major snag. Everything was so good and so easy that it was hard to move on to the next recipe, so there were nights of repeating a recipe in addition to trying a new one (plus there were side trips trying other recipes in the book). Here are the results:
Banana black cake: Peach jam was substituted for blackberry jam, black raisins for the dates and yogurt for the buttermilk in this dense, chewy, moist, mildly spiced cake that needs no frosting. Five bananas -- 2 cups -- went into this jam confection, which would have been nearly 3 1/2 inches tall and nearly 7 pounds if all the batter was baked in a 20-cup tube pan.
Heatter's version of an old Southern recipe called banana black cake lightens up the cake and leaves out the candied fruit.
"My husband and I were invited to a wedding in Havana, Georgia," Heatter said through her publicist, "and I decided to develop a traditional Southern recipe that would travel well and feed a crowd."
Cuban banana bread: A cup of bran cereal (All-Bran) provides this loaf with its wonderful dense, chewy, crunchy texture. Three to four ripe bananas ensure a moist, flavorful bread that's perfect for cream cheese or peanut butter sandwiches. A cup of white chocolate chips, an ingredient that's not part of the recipe, added a sweetness and depth of flavor that was intriguing and irresistible. Intriguing because the white chocolate melted into the loaf and irresistible because of the added sweetness.
Cuban rhythms from a bygone ditty inspired the loaf. You can almost hear Heatter singing as she recalls the song: "I'm Chiquita Banana and I've come to say, bananas have to ripen in a certain way. When they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste best and are best for you. You can put them in a salad, you can put them in a pie ..."
Banana carrot loaf: A cup of bananas and a cup of grated carrots lend a homey, old-fashioned flavor to a loaf flavored with a hint of unsweetened cocoa, cinnamon and nutmeg. This is a loaf that might inspire Tom Cruise-like behavior -- even without Oprah.
Pecan-peanut butter-banana bread: This half whole-wheat, half all-purpose flour loaf was created for rock royalty.
"When I heard that Elvis Presley's favorite sandwich was peanut butter and banana," said Heatter, "I just had to make a cake fit for The King."
Next up are raisin banana cupcakes, whole-wheat banana bread, star-spangled banana bread, chocolate festival cake, date-nut extra and pecan banana bread. Oh, yum!
> Banana Carrot Loaf
1 cup light raisins (steamed)
1 cup (packed) grated carrots
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon each baking soda and cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large bananas (1 cup)
Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan (8-cup capacity) and dust with bread crumbs.
Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs just to mix. Beat in sugar and oil. Coarsely chop bananas and add to egg mixtures along with raisins and carrots. Then on low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients and beat, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula, until thoroughly mixed. Turn mixture into prepared pan. Bake for one hour, 10 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the middle of the loaf, all the way to the bottom, comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from the pan.
Makes 1 (9-inch) loaf.
> Pecan-Peanut Butter-Banana Bread
1 cup each sifted all-purpose and whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 to 3 large bananas (1 cup)
1 1/2 cups pecan halves, toasted
Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter two 8-by-4-by-2 1/2 -inch pans and dust with wheat germ or dry bread crumbs.
Sift together the flours, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter until softened. Add peanut butter and beat to mix. Beat in sugar, then the eggs, one at a time. Coarsely mash bananas and add to the bowl. Then, on low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients and beat only until incorporated. Pour half of the batter into each pan and smooth tops. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes, reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of each loaf comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan before turning out.
Makes 2 small loaves.
> Cuban Banana Bread
1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup bran cereal (not flakes, such as Kellogg's All-Bran)
3 to 4 medium size bananas (1 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10 1/4 -by-3 3/4 -by-3-inch loaf pan and dust with dry bread crumbs. Sift together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft. Add vanilla, then the sugar, and beat until well-mixed. Add egg and beat until pale in color. Add bran cereal and beat just to mix. Coarsely mash bananas. Add water to bananas and stir into bran mixture. Add the raisins and nuts and beat only to mix. Then, on low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Do not overbeat. Turn mixture into prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for one hour or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from pan. Cool, refrigerate for one or two hours before slicing.
Makes one 10-inch loaf.
> Banana Black Cake
3 cups walnuts
1 1/2 cups pitted dates
2 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup unsifted whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon each nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice
1/2 teaspoon each salt, ground cloves and ginger
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup each granulated sugar and light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups seedless blackberry jam
5 medium bananas (2 cups)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 cup dark raisins
Adjust two racks, the first one-third up from the bottom and the second on the lowest rack. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter a 10-by-4-inch (20-cup capacity) tube pan. Line with parchment paper and butter the paper. Chop 2/3 cup of the walnuts finely and turn into the buttered and papered pan to coat the pan evenly. Distribute loose nuts evenly on the bottom of the pan.
Chop remaining nuts less fine. Cut dates into medium-size pieces. Toss with 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar. Sift together the flours, cocoa, spices and salt, then set aside. In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft. Beat in vanilla and both sugars. Beat eggs one at a time, then beat in the blackberry jam. Coarsely mash bananas and beat into batter. Stir baking soda into the buttermilk until baking soda dissolves. Add to batter. Scrape sides of bowl. On low speed, gradually add the sifted ingredients, beating until incorporated. With a wooden spoon, stir in nuts, dates and raisins.
Turn the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth top. Cover the top with aluminum foil and place the pan in the oven. Place a shallow pan of hot water on the lowest rack (to keep steam in the oven). Bake for one hour, remove the aluminum foil and bake for 1 1/2 more hours, or until a cake tester inserted gently all the way to the bottom comes out clean. Let stand for 20 minutes before removing. Chill and cut into thin slices. Makes 25 portions.