Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Banana Spice Cake: or, There is more than one banana bread

Like many people these days, we at A Book of Cookrye have been making a lot of banana bread. There's been a lot of theorizing about why banana bread has suddenly graced the ovens of many people who previously never baked (PS if this includes you: I hope you like the batter as much as I do), but around here it's because we keep buying a lot of bananas all at once and forgetting that they expire all at once. Seeking to expand our banana bread repertoire, we consulted our new favorite beat-up cookbook to make...
Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, 1952

Banana Spice Cake
2½ c flour (cake flour if you have it)
1¼ c sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp baking soda
2½ tsp baking powder
⅔ c shortening or butter
⅔ c mashed bananas*
1 tsp vanilla
⅓ c molasses
3 eggs
½ c milk

Heat oven to 375°. Grease a 9"x13" pan (or two or three round pans).
Sift all the dry ingredients into a big mixing bowl. If you're not sifting anything, mix them and fluff them up a bit. Drop in the butter (cut into 6 or 8 pieces), the eggs, and about ½ c bananas. Beat on low speed for 2 minutes (use medium speed if your mixer seems like it can't handle it). Add the remaining bananas, vanilla, and molasses; beat 1 minute more. Add the milk and gently beat just until blended.
Pour into the pan and bake for about 30 minutes, or until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and springs back when lightly pressed in the center. Watch carefully, because cakes with molasses in them will burn easily.

*about 2 bananas

Josephine Ferencik (Joliet, Illinois) Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, 1952
Cinnamon Icing
This icing wasn't originally with the recipe, but it's perfect with it.

2 tbsp butter
4 tsp hot water
1 tsp vanilla or so
Generous shake of cinnamon
1 c powdered sugar

Melt butter, add hot water. Whisk in vanilla and cinnamon, then add powdered sugar. Stir until smooth. Pour over cake 15-20 minutes after it's out of the oven, and tilt the pan back and forth to spread.

This recipe's been staring at us for a while since it's on the same page as the banana bread recipe we've made several times. Like the division between cupcakes and muffins, the line between banana bread and banana cake is either blurred or nonexistent. Anyone flipping through recipes can see that often the same recipe is called both in different books. But it seems that banana cakes tend to be in older books, and that we all started trying to collectively pretend they were good for you and calling it bread rather than cake in an attempt to make it seem as healthy as blueberry muffins.
Did you know one banana is one third-ish of a cup?

Most people (including Josephine Ferencik of Joliet, Illinois) just mash the bananas, but there is only one way we at A Book of Cookrye pulverize bananas nowadays:
We're living better electrically!

Obviously, anyone making this cake could just add a really generous shake of pumpkin spice instead of measuring out each and every one. But if you've been baking a while, you have probably got a lot of spices that you bought for that one recipe a few years ago and never used again. They populate the dark corners of your cabinets like old grocery bags. Sometimes it seems like you don't buy spices, you adopt them and give them a loving lifelong home in a cool dry place.
As aforementioned, this recipe's been staring at us every time we make the normal banana bread printed immediately above it. But the instructions are on the next page. We got all the listed ingredients out and only then did we see that the directions are, to put it mildly, a little odd.
If we're reading this recipe right, everything goes in there all at once.

If we end up with a lot of butter lumps interspersed through flour paste, we're blaming Josephine Ferencik of Joliet, Illinois. The mixer wasn't actually mixing anything, it was fighting with the mess in the bowl.
Cakes should never threaten to kill your appliances.

We set a timer for two minutes as Josephine Ferencik of Joliet, Illinois told us to (this will be important later). The mixer did manage to turn this into banana spice spackle, though the motor was begging for relief from this ordeal the whole time.

At this point we noticed a tiny problem with this recipe, and we don't mean the arbitrary splash of vanilla that got named in the paragraph but wasn't mentioned in the ingredient list. This recipe calls for molasses, but never mentions doing anything with it. We were a bit unsure of whether to add it with the milk at the very end since they're both liquid, or whether to add it while we already had the mixer turned off and propped up. Or perhaps we should have mixed it at the beginning? We decided to add it now because that way we'd really know it was thoroughly mixed in. Also, the mixer deserved respite, and the molasses would in theory make this impending disaster a little bit runnier.

This is the ugliest cake-mixing I've done in a long time. There are no pretty swirls of chocolate going around the batter, no light and fluffy clouds of butter creamed with sugar. We instead have mixer-breaking cement with what looks like tar on top.

But finally, with the help of the molasses, this actually looked like cake batter. It was definitely heavier than it should have been (the mixing bowl had a lot more heft than the ingredients list would suggest) and was the perfect consistency for regrouting tile, but at least we could pour it rather than attempt to use a spatula like a putty knife. At this point only one ingredient remained, and it did not want to mix in.

Eventually the mixer forced everything together, though at the end of this our batter was curdled. Seeing all those tiny little clumps suspended in the brown gave me horrible flashbacks to the last time I tried to bake a curdled batter and ended up with a pan of hot paste.

Now, remember how we said we set the timer for mixing this recipe? Well, the timer is on the oven, which (as we had heated it up before commencing) was piping hot when we inserted the pan. I hardly need mention that we turned the timer off after it beeped to announce that the time had elapsed.
After a while, I noticed that the kitchen smelled like hot cake batter, not like a baking cake. I didn't know there's a difference, did you? I kept looking in the oven and nothing in the pan changed like it ought to while baking. It's true that some recipes take longer than others to bake, but I've never heard of a cake that still looks like raw batter after almost half an hour. Then I noticed a problem...

..I had not turned off the timer but the whole oven. But the cake baked quite nicely after turning the heat back on.

It's hard to photograph because it's so dark, but we basically have gingerbread. It rose into a surprisingly airy cake.

It tastes so molasses-y and spicy that you'd think it'd be a lot of denser. With that said, it came out a bit dry. But I think that's due to my inability to correctly operate an oven. Had it not been slowly warmed over for like half an hour before actually getting baked, I think it'd be perfect. But we had a big pan of cake and therefore could not waste it.
I'd just like to point out that as dry as it was, a lot of cake got eaten anyway.

Like many people whose cakes never live up to the hopes that ferried them into the oven, we decided to try to fix our failures with icing. But since spreading icing requires effort, we chose the easier path of simply dumping glaze on instead. To give the glaze a better chance at making this cake a bit less desiccated, we thoroughly punctured the top before pouring on a lot of cinnamon icing. Said icing ended up looking oddly orange atop the cake.

With that said, it un-dried the cake enough to make it lovely. It didn't soak all the way through the cake as I'd hoped, but the top of the cake was the driest part and the icing corrected that flawlessly. And the cinnamon complemented the cake beneath it so well that I'd put it on this cake the next time, even if I do correctly operate the oven and thus avoid drying it out.

This is a really good, dark, spicy cake. It doesn't taste like bananas very much, though you can detect them underneath everything. And it comes out so light-textured and lovely. Also, since it's a banana cake, you can always bake it in a loaf pan and call it banana bread. We all know bread is better for you than cake, so you're already succeeding in avoiding dessert.
Anyway, this is really good, and making it is an excellent workout for your mixer. I'm already planning to make this one again.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Second-Stab Saturday: More banana cake!

A lot of bananas have passed through the kitchen recently, and they all went brown at the same time. And so, for the second time in a short time, we are making this banana cake recipe that lets us turn five nearly-rotten bananas into cake. Most banana bread recipes only use two or three, but we had a lot more bananas than that which we urgently needed to use. Well, technically we could freeze them for another day, but why do that when you can have dessert?

Mrs. Kahn's Banana Sour Cream Cake
      Mix and set aside:
2 tbsp butter, melted
½ c sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
½ c chopped nuts*
1 or 2 bananas, sliced (add the bananas after everything else is mixed)
3 bananas
½ c sour cream
1½ tsp salt
½ c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
1½ c all-purpose flour
½ c whole-wheat flour

Heat oven to 350°. Grease an 8" or 9" square pan.
For the cake, blenderize the bananas, sour cream, and salt. Set aside.
Cream the butter, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Alternately add the flour and the blender mixture, starting and ending with flour.
Pour about half the batter, perhaps a little more, into the pan. Sprinkle with half the banana slice-sugar-cinnamon mixture. Repeat these layers. If extra cinnamon-sugar remains in the bowl, scatter it in large drops across the cake.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean.

*I left these out, but if you like nuts in cakes you will likely do otherwise.

Source: adapted from a recipe by Ruth (Mrs. David) Kahn, 1973 Detroit-area newspaper clipping via Mid-Century Menu

You may be wondering: what is so different about this recipe this time? What makes it so unlike the last time you made it that you're posting it again? The recipe-altering difference lies in the measuring cup shown below.

Yes indeed, we're adding whole-wheat flour! The brown flour, especially when combined with the bananas (which as we all know are a great source of potassium), allows us to pretend this is good for you. Since this cake will have five bananas in it, it's practically a fruit salad with whole grains thrown in for extra dieters' points.
In all seriousness, we thought that the cake needed a little extra flavor kick. The brown sugar nuggets and banana slices interspersed throughout were great, but the actual cake was a little... well... flat. The banana flavor came though wonderfully, and it was in that perfect spot between dense and airy, but the only flavor in the cake itself was sweetened bananas. Yes, we can add spices and the like, but this seemed like it needed some earthy undertones in it. So we added just enough brown flour to change the taste. After all, we've been doing whole-wheat swaps with brownies for a while (often replacing all of the flour and not just part of it). No one has complained, though a few people have said that they have a little extra I-don't-know-what to them. The flavor of whole-wheat just seems to go well with a lot of things put into desserts. If you think I'm batty in saying so, consider that whole wheat flour is the main ingredient in graham crackers, and those grace the underside of many a pie and cheesecake.
In making this recipe, we learned that Mrs. Ruth Kahn was not kidding when she said to use a square pan. The cake batter barely fit in this round pan before it had been in the oven long enough to rise.
Keep in mind this is only half the batter. We're supposed to sprinkle a layer of bananas and then pour the rest in.

We hastily rummaged through the cabinets trying to find something bigger than this but smaller than the massive sheet pan. This odd-size rectangle was the best we came up with. I don't have a ruler at hand, but the long side of the pan is about the same as the short side of a sheet of copy paper. The batter came up a little bit higher than we'd have liked, but hopefully it still had enough room to rise without spilling over and burning on the bottom of the oven.

As you can see, this pan barely held the cake. Had I done a good job of scraping the bowl into the pan, we would have had some serious overflow in the oven and a very smoky kitchen. It is well known that I usually don't get out the rubber spatula until after the baked creation is in the oven. While I always love to eat cake batter, rarely has licking the spoon saved me from cleaning the oven.

In case you think I'm being dramatic, let's get a good closeup of the edges of this pan. As you can see, if it had contained any more cake batter it would certainly have dripped over and smoked up the oven. This kitchen is unfortunately open to the rest of the house, so the resulting smoke would have spilled over into the living room, and from there up the stairs, and become part of the house's atmosphere for at least a week.

I'm still not sure I like the look of sliced bananas on this cake. After baking, they look weird and dried-out. They taste really good after baking in cake batter and turn marvelously creamy, but they look... er... bad. We may cut them into semicircles next time so they look less... like this.

With that said, this cake is amazing. The whole-wheat flour added just enough extra flavor to give it what it was missing. We will note that when others entered the kitchen and saw a dripping mixing bowl on the counter and Mrs. Kahn's recipe taped on the cabinet above, excitement filled the kitchen. "You're making that one again??" That's how good this cake is.