Sunday, June 21, 2020

Banana Yeast Bread: or, Banana bread that is not also dessert

Today, we at A Book of Cookrye are sharing an interesting idea we had: what happens when you put bananas instead of sugar into yeast bread? Make no mistake, we do love banana bread. Why else would we have made it so many times? This time, we wondered what would happen if you made a banana bread that doesn't become a cake just because you made it in a cake pan. So we had the bright idea of just putting it into a yeast dough recipe and seeing what would happen. We consulted our new favorite cookbook (we fell in love with it when we saw the battered cover) and found...
Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, First Catholic Slovak Ladies' Union, 1952

This recipe seemed perfect for inserting bananas because it has mashed potatoes. We have no familiarity with altering bread recipes, so we were afraid that just dumping mashed bananas into an otherwise normal recipe would ruin it in unforeseen ways. But swapping mashed bananas for mashed spuds seemed reasonably safe.

Banana Yeast Bread
1 c banana (packed firmly into the cup when measuring)
1 c warm water
½ packet yeast (if you don't know when you'd use the rest, just use the whole thing)
1 pinch sugar
4 c flour
1½ tsp salt
3 tbsp fat
1 or 2 tbsp milk

Mix the sugar, water, and yeast. Set aside 5 minutes to make sure it foams and that the yeast is alive.
Thoroughly blenderize the yeast-water and the banana.
In a large bowl, mix 3½ c flour with the salt. Rub in the fat with your fingertips until it's thoroughly mixed. Add the banana mixture. Mix well, adding the remaining flour as needed if it's too goopy. Knead until springy and elastic. Cover with a wet cloth or paper towel (don't hang it over the top of the bowl, lay it directly on top of the dough and press it firmly onto its surface). Refrigerate for a few hours, or up to a few days.
When ready to bake, take the dough out, punch it down if it's risen any, and put it in a warm place. Let it rise until double in height.
Roll the dough into small balls, and place them on a greased baking sheet. If the dough is too runny and/or sticky to shape into rolls, you can either divide it among muffin cups or put all of it in a loaf pan.
Brush the tops of the rolls with milk. If you have no brush, you can pour a splash of milk across the top and quickly spread it with your finger before it has time to soak in. Let rise.
Bake at 350° until thoroughly done. Be careful- when you do any of the doneness tests (thumping it to see if it sounds hollow, pressing it to see if it springs back, etc), it may seem completely done but still be doughy in the middle. I even stuck a toothpick in the center and it came out dry, yet the center of the bread was still just hot dough. Find or borrow a meat thermometer and insert it so the tip is in the center of the bread (make sure it's also about halfway between the top and bottom). It should read about 195°.
This bread reheats very nicely the next day in the microwave.

adapted from a recipe by Louise Zaremba (of Joliet, Illinois), Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, First Catholic Slovak Ladies' Union, 1952

In our happy theory, using mashed bananas instead of mashed potatoes would make this a slightly-sweet bread with an interesting subtle flavor that you don't get from adding a bit of extra sugar. But first, we had to obtain yeast for this endeavor. In ordinary times, we'd have just gone out to buy some. But yeast has gotten as scarce as the good toilet paper. We did some very very deep digging into the back of the pantry and found this. I turned on the date-stamp on the camera just to emphasize how many years it has lain dormant and unbaked.

In normal times, we'd have thrown this out in a decluttering spree, but in this plague we are more vigilant than ever about holding onto every dusty seasoning packet and can of pickled carp fillets. You just never know when the next shortage will strike, or what will go scarce. And as there was no yeast to be had in the store, it was this yeast (which has reached age of consent in some jurisdictions) or nothing.
We almost always test yeast in warm water before baking, but it's hitherto always been a formality. We've never had any reason to believe the yeast was dead. But today, we put it in water with fervent hope instead of bland certainty. We even gave the yeast a packet of sugar (pocketed from some coffee shop years ago and kept in a container with many just like it- because we would surely use it someday) hoping that food would wake it up.

And so, we sprinkled the yeast over the warm, slightly-sugared water, wondering if we had merely moistened a packet of corpses.

Yes, there are some bubbles already in the water, but that's just from frothing it up a bit while stirring.

A minute elapsed, and we glanced back into the glass. Was the yeast alive and foaming, or were we merely seeing their dead remains separate and spread out into the water? 

I'm sure you already guessed the happy result. We wouldn't have announced banana bread only to write that the yeast was dead and we cancelled the recipe. The yeast looked lifeless for quite a long time, but every time we glanced at it we thought it might have changed a little bit. But eventually it decided to look happy and lively, and we were thrilled to get out the rest of the ingredients and (hopefully) make some delightful bread.
It's aliiiiiiiiiiiive!

In a normal world, bread is one of the cheapest things you can make. But in a normal world, flour is cheap and easy to find. These days, the grocery store is like a perpetual night-before-Thanksgiving. Aisles that normally are ignored (the baking aisle, the toilet paper aisle, the spice rack) are suddenly swamped and ravaged, leaving bare shelves and the remains of package-ripping carnage. I'm amazed that we have this flour at hand to make bread out of. You'd think we'd be rationing it by the tablespoon for white sauce and brown gravy, but we have enough flour to use two pints of it (that's an entire quart of flour) in a recipe without even knowing if it will work.

And now, we get to our mashed "potatoes." We didn't actually get out a fork and mash the bananas, we just broke them into measuring-cup lengths and shoved them in there. Yes, there are some large pieces of banana embedded in there, but that didn't matter, as you will see.

And this is why I didn't even bother cutting the bananas up. We are bringing out the power tools to do the work for us. This blender has been surprisingly resilient. Sure, it smells like burning electricity and sounds overloaded whenever you make it pulverize even the mushiest of foods, but it keeps not dying.  

Meanwhile in another pan, things look more like a normal recipe. Incidentally, butter is as plentiful as ever. Not that I'm complaining about fully-stocked butter, but doesn't everyone suddenly trying home baking (note if this includes you: welcome to the wonderful world of bread and cake! Be sure to lick the rubber spatula!) want butter to spread on their homemade creations?

Well, we say it looks normal, but really it looks like the beginning of a normal pie crust. Incidentally, I had considered making this with whole-wheat flour, but that is just about impossible to get this month. This unfortunately means that we can't try to pretend this is healthy. Yes, it has two bananas in it, but I don't know anyone who's ever gotten slim and trim from putting blueberries into muffin batter. They all were happy and sated though.

Speaking of bananas, it is time to add them! Yes, the blender has turned them into a splat the color of a 1970s economy car, but the appearance did not unnerve us. In baking, we've only ever seen bananas in three places: pudding, cream pie, and bread that is so sweet it's basically a cake. This is the first time we've ever baked anything that doesn't surround the bananas in a dessert's worth of sugar. This, therefore, is an experiment: do bananas taste different when you bake them? If so, are they any good without heavy sweetening?

We were hoping we would be able to dump the extra flour, unused, back into the sack for another time. After all, flour is as scarce as face masks right now. However, what should have been a kneadable bread dough was in fact this sticky mess.

We added the rest of the flour and like a miracle, the dough turned into a sticky un-kneadable mess to a sticky, barely-kneadable one. It took a long time to get it to look like this semi-cohesive mass. If you liked squishing Play-Doh more than sculpting it, this recipe is for you. To make things go a bit more nicely, I was not alone in the kitchen. So this wasn't a long ordeal of dough-kneading, but just absently slapping the dough between my hands while conversing.
As you can see, the dough is still hopelessly sticky, but it seems to want to hold a shape instead of just slowly dripping through my fingers. We thought that perhaps if we were very careful-handed in shaping it and used a lot of flour, it might actually turn into the rolls we would have gotten had we actually followed the recipe.

At this point, we figured this bread was a kneaded as it could get, so we shoved it under a wet shop towel and left it in the refrigerator. It later occurred to us: is the blue dye they use in these things food-safe?

We then had a minor problem. As shown above, our hands were a hopeless sticky mess. They needed not just a quick wash but a hard scouring. We happened to know that in this kitchen, a scrub brush resides in the drawer of random implements. However, our hands were so covered in the floury ooze that we could not extract it without smearing what felt like flour-based flypaper adhesive onto half the things in the drawer. We had to call for help and literally ask "Could you take that object out of the drawer and hand it to me?"

As we learned when trying out a handwritten bread recipe in the back of a cookbook, if you let your yeast dough just sit in the refrigerator for a few hours, it starts to taste a lot better. The yeast flavor gets so much stronger since the yeast has more time to eat the sugar and turn it into all the things that make yeast bread taste so nice. We nearly didn't do that with this batch of dough because we feared that the yeast would at any time remember that it's supposed to be dead. Of course, yeast has no memory that we know of, but we also worried that our little microscopic bread friends would finally die of old age before the dough was ready to bake.
Reassuringly, the dough looked just a teeny bit puffed-up after we took it out of the refrigerator, as it should. The dough continues rising very slowly even in the cold. While one doesn't need to use a massive bowl to allow room for expansion, the dough does get just a tiny bit enlarged. So, after being awakened from a long slumber and put through a blender, it looked like our yeasts were still fit to make our bread lovely and light!

We squished the dough flat and put it in a barely-warm oven to rise. Sure enough, this yeast that had needed such a long time to come to life earlier today had become so lively that the dough rose with delightful speed. I almost felt bad at taking this yeast, which has survived so long and still been so vigorous, and baking it.

You know how we managed to knead this dough into something that, while extremely sticky and messy, could at least be shaped into rolls? It turns out that the long refrigerated rest followed by the long time rising has made it even runnier than before. This dough was too goopy to shape into rolls. And if we did manage it, the dough would run and spread out into flat patties anyway.

We thought to ourselves, why not make bread muffins? Those are always a cute way to serve bread. This dough was going to need as much help holding a shape as cake batter, and muffins seemed like an adorable way to give it the support of a pan. But this is the only muffin pan we found in the house.

These small cupcake pans mystify me, especially when they're so old. Who only makes six cupcakes at a time? How deep did you have to dig for extra-small-batch cupcake recipes, especially in the years before the internet made it possible to quickly look up "recipes to serve one"? You might say that this pan is for when you've already baked most of your batter in the big 12- or 18-cup pan,  and you're scraping off the bottom of the bowl. But why would you get out a second pan? You're only going to have to wash it afterward along with the big one that was already dirty.
Well, we certainly were not going to wait for these to rise and bake if we can only make 6 at a time. This fun bread experiment would turn into a 10-hour ordeal by gluten. We rummaged further into the cabinets and found a loaf pan to just dump the dough into so we could bake it all at once and be done with it.

We were thinking about putting an egg wash on top of this. It'd add a nice glaze to it. But if you've ever used an egg wash, you know that you barely use any of the egg for it unless you're brushing it over a lot of bread. We have previously mentioned how irksome it is to dump most of an egg down the drain just so you can get an aesthetically-appealing shine on your baked goods. You can avoid waste by just putting the rest of the egg in a small frying pan and scrambling it for a quick snack, or you can (if you're the sort of person who's so organized they always know exactly what's going on in their refrigerator) freeze the extra for future bread batches. We at A Book of Cookrye decided to just pour out a tiny splash of milk to brush on top instead. In baking class, they mentioned milk wash as an option, and (with a slightly contemptuous undertone) said it had a more "homemade" and "unprofessional" look. As it happens, I don't care how unprofessional my banana bread looks, so here we are.
You could glaze the top of the bread with those last few drops that didn't come out of the milk carton.

This baked for nearly an hour. We had planned on serving bread with dinner, but we had to cancel that because we were not going to let dinner dry out on the stove while telling everyone to shut up and wait until the bread was ready at some undetermined time in the future. Eventually, when we gave the bread a good thump, it sounded hollow. When we jammed a toothpick in there, it came out dry. The bread was golden on top and (theoretically) ready.

We began to suspect that the bread was in fact not ready (despite testing positive for doneness) when we saw how pale it looked on the sides. Sure, the sides are fully cooked, but they didn't look.... finished somehow.

Sure enough, when we sliced the bread open, there was a core of hot dough spanning the length of the loaf. We hastily put it back in the oven. But how would we make very sure the bread was baked?
Well, as it happens, one of our friends surprised us with a thermometer! When one of the many mail-order packages arrived (like most people, we've been doing a lot more mail-order of late), he handed the unopened box over with "I think this is yours."
I haven't gotten this much of a surprise since a friend of mine I visit a lot had to get his house rewired. He specifically ordered wall outlets with USB plugs because I always have a dead phone battery and no charger.
This bread is measurably done.

And here's the finished bread! We are now very certain that it's baked because we jammed a thermometer in there and verified it. It got so dark I almost feared we burned it.
You can also see where we didn't manage to get the milk wash all the way to the edges.

As you can see, there is no raw dough in there! It only took an hour and a half to finally get this baked. After all the runniness, the mess, the stickiness, the random detours with a blender, the yeast that's older than most teenagers, and other misadventures, I was surprised to see that it looked so much like actual bread when we cut into it.

If you look under the wrapping, you can see that the bottom and sides are also nicely browned. This bread turned out so very lovely and right.

Now, when we first got the dough mixed up and ready for its afternoon in the refrigerator next to the pickles, it had a very slight sweetness to it (after all, the yeasts needed to eat something). The bread dough wasn't Hawaiian-roll sweet, but just ever-so-slightly so. That sweetness was quite gone by the time these were baked, leaving behind a lovely, rich bread. There was a slight banana flavor underneath, but not enough to make one think "Bananas!". The banana taste was just strong enough to add a subtle I-don't-know-what-this-is-but-it's-rather-nice extra flavor. It turns out that once the sweetness is gone from bananas, the remaining taste is really interesting and complex. When we mixed that with the lovely flavors of yeast bread, it was absolutely delicious.
In the future, when it's easy to get flour again, I will definitely be trying this again with whole-wheat. The flavors already in the bread seemed like they'd go really well with whole-wheat flour instead of white. Also, we could eat massive hunks of it without feeling bad.

This bread was also really sturdy. It'd be great with soups or with anything that has a lot of sauce that you'd want to sop up. Its rich flavor would complement it and make it so much nicer.

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