cake

the layer cake: milk bar edition by Annie Jefferson

I moved to New York City the same year the Momofuku Milk Bar did. It was 2008 and me and their soft serve were braving the chaos together. For my birthday that year my mom sent the Milk Bar's dulce de leche layer cake to my East Village apartment and my friends and I had never seen such a thing. The cake was short-lived because our 21-year old stomachs were able to take down multiple slices at a time, but I never forgot it. The Milk Bar cakes became more and more popular over the years to the point where it eventually became assumed, even expected, that one would be provided at every birthday dinner for every 20-something on the island. The cakes even started coming in plus size for weddings. And the bakery embraced its growing popularity, publishing recipes and offering classes to spread the word about their famous cakes.

When I moved from New York to London, there was no longer a Milk Bar to visit, and I'm not sure what the Brits would make of these mega cakes made of layers stacked upon naked layers of cake and frosting, sweetened milk and cake crumbs, gooey curds, sauces, candy and sprinkles. Moving from London to Los Angeles last year didn't solve the problem, seeing as there's no Milk Bar here either. So, I figured the time for a reunion was nigh when my best friend and 2008-birthday-cake-eating-partner visited LA from New York to turn 30 a few weeks back.  

The Momofuku Milk Bar was started by James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award-winner, Christina Tosi. Like many of us, it took trying multiple paths - for her, electrical engineering, applied mathematics - before the Virginia-raised chef was able to realize that her hobby - baking - was actually her life's passion, and her lifelong preference for junk food and casually throwing together unlikely flavors - 'mayonnaise and brown sugar with Doritos' - was her ticket to novelty and success in the pastry world. As Tosi told the New York Times, “I was never raised to take myself so seriously when baking...certain parts of me aren’t fussy enough to make those plated desserts. It doesn’t speak to me, that delicate dreaminess. I just didn’t have it.”

This approach worked for David Chang, the man behind the Momofuku empire, who saw Tosi's talent when she was showing up each day to her desk job - writing Momofuku's food safety plan - with a different chocolate chip cookie sandwich or brownie topped with crushed potato chips that she'd made in her free time. Chang was intrigued, and after putting her in charge of just one dessert to be served at his Ssam Bar, it quickly became clear that the empire would need to make room for a full pastry division. It was confusing for everyone when an ice cream and pastry shop opened up in a tiny alcove on 13th Street attached to Ssam Bar, an Asian restaurant, but the ice cream made with cereal infused milk was good enough for people not to question it. 

Since then, Milk Bar has expanded, opening locations all across New York City, and in Washington, D.C., Toronto and soon in Vegas. Tosi has published two books and won multiple James Beard awards, all the while standing firmly behind her quirky, messy, whatever the opposite of 'delicate dreaminess' is, approach to baking. And we and this recipe thank her for it.

I say that this blog is a direct reflection of the way that I eat, so while most days - and most posts - are conscious of using whole and natural ingredients, as with life there are times for experimentation and special occasion. This cake is one of them. It's rich in flavor and impressive in appearance, yet it's playful and doesn't take itself too seriously, kind of like Christina Tosi. 

I changed the traditional dulce de leche recipe slightly to incorporate coconut at several stages and cream cheese frosting to balance out the otherwise unrelenting sugar. I also doubled the recipe for the milk crumbs because they're easily the best part! I can't wait to play around with these little crumbles and use them in other recipes. You will end up with extra by using the doubled recipe below, but you can just zip-lock baggy and send them with your friend for a plane-ride-back-to-New-York-snack, as I did. 

The cake appears impossible to make at home, but with a few tools and special ingredients it's really pretty simple. There are multiple elements to a Milk Bar cake: cake, soak, filling, crumbs, filling, repeat. This behind the scenes gallery from Serious Eats has lots of helpful photos and descriptions of each step. As you work through the recipe below, especially the assembly portion, I would suggest using the visuals in the gallery as a guide. Once you've made the cake one time, take a page from Tosi's book and come up with your own flavor. I'm thinking dark chocolate cake with halva filling and sea salt crumbs for the next DIY Milk Cake!

COCONUT DULCE DE LECHE MILK BAR CAKE
Adapted from the Momofuku Milk Bar recipe

Makes 1 (6-inch) layer cake, 5 to 6 inches tall, serves 8-12

EQUIPMENT
1 quarter (9in x 13in) sheet pan
1 (6-inch) cake ring
2 strips acetate, each 3 inches wide and 20 inches long (I got mine from Blick art supply store)

INGREDIENTS
1 recipe coconut dulce de leche cake (below)
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon (65 grams) canned coconut milk
1 cup (275 grams) dulce de leche (you can use any brand, or opt for homemade, even vegan)
1 recipe dulce de leche cream cheese frosting (below)
1 recipe milk crumb (below)


COCONUT DULCE DE LECHE CAKE

INGREDIENTS
8 tablespoons (115 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (275 grams) dulce de leche
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup (110 grams) coconut milk
1/2 cup (75 grams) grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon (4 grams) vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (185 grams) cake flour (here is an easy cake flour substitute using cornstarch from The Kitchn if you don't have cake flour in your pantry)
1 teaspoon (4 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (4 grams) kosher salt

METHOD
Heat oven to 350° F. Grease and line with parchment a quarter sheet pan, and set it aside.

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the dulce de leche, and cream on high for another 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl again. Add the eggs and yolk, one at a time, beating on medium-high for 1 minute after each addition. After you add the last egg, beat on high for 4 more minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once more.

On medium-high speed, pour in the coconut milk, oil and vanilla very slowly. It should take 3-4 minutes to add these liquids. Don’t rush this process - you’re basically forcing too much liquid into an already fatty mixture that doesn’t want to make room for that liquid. There should be no streaks of fat or liquid and the mixture should look smooth and not curdled. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

On very low speed, add the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix for 45 to 60 seconds, just until your batter comes together and any remnants of dry ingredients have been incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. If you see any lumps of cake flour in there while you’re scraping, mix for another 30-45 seconds.

Using a spatula, spread the cake batter in an even layer in the pan. Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes. The cake will rise and puff, doubling in size, but will remain buttery and dense. At 30 minutes, gently poke the edge of the cake with your finger. The cake should bounce back slightly and the center should no longer be jiggly. Leave the cake in the oven for an extra 3 to 5 minutes if it doesn’t pass these tests.

Allow to cool completely. The cake can be made several days ahead of time. I stored mine in tightly wrapped plastic wrap for 2 days in the refrigerator. 


DULCE DE LECHE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

INGREDIENTS
1 stick (226 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (226 grams) cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons (35 grams) dulce de leche
1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) vanilla extract
2 cups (375 grams) confectioners’ sugar

METHOD
Using a standing or handheld mixer, cream together the butter, cream cheese and dulce de leche. Gently stir in vanilla extract. Then slowly add confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, scraping down sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go. Continue to mix until fluffy.

Set frosting aside in a sealed container in the fridge until you are ready to assemble the cake. Just be sure frosting is room temperature at the time of assembly.


MILK CRUMB

INGREDIENTS
1 cup (80 grams) milk powder + 1/2 cup (40 grams) 
1/4 cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (24 grams) cornstarch
2 tablespoons (50 grams sugar)
1 teaspoon (2 grams) kosher salt
8 tablespoons (110 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 bars (180 grams) coconut white chocolate, melted (I used Lindt brand)
1 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened

METHOD
Heat the oven to 250°F. Combine the 1 cup milk powder, flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Toss with your hands to mix. Add the melted butter and toss with a spatula, until the mixture starts to come together and form small clusters.

Spread the clusters on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake for 20 minutes. The crumbs should be sandy at that point, and your kitchen should smell like buttery heaven. Cool the crumbs completely.

Crumble any milk crumb clusters that are larger than ½ inch in diameter and put the crumbs in a medium bowl. Add the remaining 1/2 cup milk powder and toss together until it is evenly distributed throughout the mixture.

Pour the coconut white chocolate over the crumbs and toss until your clusters are enrobed. Stir in shredded coconut. Then continue tossing them every 5 minutes until the chocolate hardens and the clusters are no longer sticky. The crumbs will keep in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer for up to 1 month.


CAKE ASSEMBLY
Put a piece of parchment paper onto a flat surface. Invert the cake onto it and peel off the existing parchment from the bottom of the cake. Use the cake ring to stamp out 2 circles from the cake. These are your top 2 cake layers. the remaining cake “scrap” will come together to make the bottom layer. Clean the cake ring and place it in the center of a sheet pan lined with clean parchment. Use 1 strip of acetate to line the inside of the cake ring

Layer 1: put the cake scraps together inside the ring and use the back of your hand to tamp the scraps together into a flat even layer. Dunk a pastry brush in the coconut milk and give the cake a good, healthy bath of half the milk. Use the back of a spoon to spread one-half of the dulce de leche in an even layer over the cake. Sprinkle one third of the milk crumbs evenly over the dulce de leche. Use the palm of your hand to anchor them in place. Next use the back of a spoon to spread a third of the frosting as evenly as possible over the crumbs.

Layer 2: using your index finger gently tuck the second strip of acetate between the cake ring and the top ¼ inch of the first strip of acetate, so that you have a clear ring of acetate 5 to 6 inches tall-high enough to support the height of the finished cake. set the less perfect of the remaining 2 cake rounds on top of the frosting, and repeat the process for layer 1.

Layer 3: nestle the remaining cake round into the frosting. Cover the top of the cake with the remaining frosting and garnish the frosting with the remaining milk crumbs. Transfer the sheet pan to the freezer and freeze for a minimum of 12 hours to set the cake and filling. The cake will keep in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.

At least 3 hours before you are ready to serve the cake, pull the sheet pan out of the freezer and, using your fingers and thumbs, pop the cake out of the cake ring. Gently peel off the acetate, and transfer the cake to a platter or cake stand. Let it defrost in the fridge for a minimum of 3 hours (wrapped well in plastic, the cake can be refrigerated for up to 5 days).

the perfect snacking cake + einkorn flour by Annie Jefferson

This is the perfect snacking cake. Not too sweet, not too rich, and on the cakey rather than dense end of the spectrum with cornmeal for crunching and a sturdy brown crust. It picks up, transports, and slices beautifully. It's extremely versatile, flexing to accommodate rhubarb in the spring, cranberries in the winter, and sliced peaches or berries of any kind in the summer. It would welcome on top a drizzling of vanilla glaze, a sprinkling of chopped pistachios, or the zest of an orange. It serves well for breakfast, brunch, dessert or simply to have around for midday (or late-day or early-day) snacking. 

The perfect snaking cake is inspired by the Blueberry Cornmeal Cake from Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe in Santa Monica. Have you been? I went for the first time a few weeks ago and spent the whole brunch flipping through the cafe copy of the Huckleberry cookbook. I looked up just enough to notice that the line was out the door from start to finish and that every single thing arriving at the tables looked good. I knew about their Blueberry Cornmeal Cake long before that day and ordering and eating it was the first thing I did when we got there, even before brunch came. 

The Huckleberry recipe - found both here and here - includes, in addition to a load of sugar and butter, one and a half cups of all-purpose white flour. It's really delicious. I'd recommend coming to LA to try it. But for our purposes, for a snacking cake to be a snacking cake, it has to feel okay to go in for a second or third slice without feeling sick or regret.

Although - as with everything - there are exceptions and special occasions, it's increasingly clear that all-purpose white flour is not a solution for everyday cooking. There's a lot of confusion and misinformation these days about wheat and gluten and what, if any of this, is making us unwell. The current thinking is that gluten itself is actually only harmful to the very small percentage of population with celiac disease. For the rest of us who are suffering, we're likely experiencing the inflammatory and digestive issues associated with sensitivity to the modern, mass market brand of wheat.

For thousands of years before us, wheat was a - if not the - nutritional staple, the opposite of making people sick. It was fresh and organic, made from whole kernels and stone ground in small quantities to nourish communities. Modern wheat, however, through a process of 'refining' the berries by stripping them of their nutritious bran and germ and then 'enriching' the flour by adding back the smallest amount of nutrients, is a far cry from from the wheat our grandmothers and certainly their grandmothers were baking with. What we consume today is a dramatically altered - some say 'mutant' - form of wheat that has evolved over the last several generations with the advent of industrial milling, genetic modification and so-called 'high-input' farming to maximize yield and minimize costs. "It ain't wheat" in the words of Wheat Belly author, William Davis, and it's no wonder we are sick. 

Back to the cake. I'd been reading about einkorn flour for some time, but I hadn't tried baking with it until now, and I'm sure it would have taken me much longer to do so had my boyfriend's mom not showed up with a bag of the stuff, sensing that my first attempt at recreating this cake using almond and spelt flours fell flat. Einkorn is the world's most ancient wheat, sometimes called 'man's first wheat', and it's one of the only strains that hasn't been hybridized, meaning it's never undergone the artificial process of selection based on desirable characteristics, such as with high gluten content in modern wheat. As a result, einkorn is as wild as it gets when it comes to wheat, and people seem to be reporting much more positive digestive responses than with regular flour. This makes sense since the low gluten content is easier on digestion, and easy digestion allows for greater absorption of nutrients, with which einkorn is packed.

This cake adapted well to einkorn flour and I was pleased to see what a perfect 1:1 replacement it was. We opt for natural cane sugar in place of white sugar and replace the butter with solid coconut oil to maximize snackability. The greek yogurt adds a density and a volume that really helps both sturdy and fluff up the cake. But really, this cake is about celebrating the magic of the einkorn flour - if you've worked with einkorn recently, let me know about your experience below!

BLACKBERRY CORNMEAL SNACKING CAKE

INGREDIENTS
3/4 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoons coconut oil, solid
3/4 cup + 3 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups einkhorn all-purpose flour*
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups full fat greek yogurt
1 cup blackberries, or other fruit
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar for sprinkling

METHOD
Position a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to 350°F. Line and grease a 10-inch round cake pan.

Using a standing or handheld mixer, beat together the coconut oil, maple syrup and salt until thoroughly incorporated. Add the eggs and egg white, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Be sure to scrape the sides of the bowl well. Stir in vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and baking soda. Stir into liquid ingredients until only just incorporated (batters with einkorn flour can get gummy). Fold in greek yogurt.

Scoop the batter into the pan, pour over the blackberries (or your choice of fruit), and sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow to cool for about 15-30 minutes in the pan.

Remove the cake: place a flat plate on top of the cake and pan. Carefully invert the cake onto the plate by flipping both upside down. Then lift the pan off the cake. Gently pull the parchment from every nook and cranny of the cake, being careful not to break the cake. Rest your serving plate on the bottom of the cake and turn the cake right-side up onto the plate.

*If you are trying to stick to a gluten-free diet, a combination of gluten-free flour and/or almond flours should work here. 

kumquat day by Annie Jefferson

When life gives you 4 pounds of kumquats, make cake, curd and marmalade all in one day. Kumquat day.

My boyfriend’s parents cook on a farm near Santa Barbara and sometimes deliver us truckloads of beautiful, organic surplus produce. Today it was gigantic dirt-covered red beets, bright green shishito peppers, perfectly polished mouth popping baby tomatoes, and more fresh green herbs than I could possibly figure out what to do with before they begin to wilt.

Among the loot was also a massive bag of kumquats. Kumquats are a small citrus variety that taste like a lemon, an orange and a lime all at once. They’re the only citrus whose skin is tender and sweet enough to eat, and you must eat the skin! Unlike other citrus, the rind of the kumquat is the sweet part and the inside the tart part.

A single kumquat tree, depending on its size, can produce hundreds, often thousands of the little fruits every year. And so you have people like me, whose lives have suddenly, without warning, been thrown into kumquat production overdrive.

I started with a curd. I once had to make a vegan version of lemon curd for a cake recipe and I actually prefer it and have stuck with it ever since. The coconut milk makes it as creamy as you'd want a curd to be and the mixture thickens up flawlessly with a few spoonfuls of cornstarch. Curd made with kumquats is slightly more puckering than with lemon, and the flavor is really discernibly unique. You can strain out the rinds halfway through the recipe for a more uniform curd, but I love the little flecks of orange and the added texture.

I ended up swirling some of the curd into a loaf cake and jarring up the rest to give away to some curd-deprived vegans (with this recipe you’ll end up with a little extra).

The flavors here aren’t all soft and sweet like you’d expect from a typical loaf cake. You get hit with the unexpected tangy bite from the kumquats immediately. It’s evened out by the sweetness and nuttiness of the cake, but it’s there and it’s interesting. Mixing curd into the center ensures the whole thing is full of moisture – it’s like a built in spread.

IMG_5396.jpg

I’d never made marmalade with kumquats before, but with over 3 pounds to go, it seemed like the right thing to do. The great thing about marmalade is that because citrus peel naturally contains high levels of pectin and marmalade by definition includes the peel, you don’t need store-bought pectin to help it bind together. The little bits of kumquat get softened into a perfectly tender, almost Sour Patch Kids-like chewy consistency. I added the seeds from a whole vanilla bean for a smoother layer to the flavoring – I often find marmalade too one-dimensionally tart – and for the little black flakes that get set into the gel. I love this recipe, I doubled it this time and I’ll make it again and again.

Were I to make a FOURTH kumquat dish, I would have reduced the marmalade into a glaze and made a kumquat drizzle cake, but – I’m happy to say – kumquat day is over.

 

KUMQUAT CURD CAKE

KUMQUAT COCONUT CURD

INGREDIENTS
1 cup coconut milk
juice of 1/2 a lemon
30 kumquats, seeded and halved
1/2 cup coconut sugar (regular sugar will work too)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla extract

METHOD
Heat coconut milk, lemon juice and sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once warmed but not boiling, add kumquats. Stir and simmer, allowing to infuse for 10 minutes.

Transfer kumquats and liquid to a food processor and pulse until kumquats have been chopped to small flecks of orange. Return mixture to saucepan and heat over medium heat. Add cornstarch one tablespoon at a time, constantly stirring for 6-8 minutes until the mixture thickens to a creamy consistency. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract. Allow to cool as you make the cake batter.

LOAF CAKE

INGREDIENTS
1 cup (120 grams) whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup (120 grams) spelt flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
3/4 cup (170 grams) canola oil
1/2 cup (120 grams) greek yogurt
1/4 cup (85 grams) honey
2/3 cup (135 grams) natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of 4 kumquats
2 eggs
1 teaspoon turbinado sugar for sprinkling

METHOD
Preheat your oven to 350° F. Grease and flour a loaf pan.

Combine flours, baking powder and sea salt in a bowl. In a second bowl, whisk together oil, greek yogurt, honey, kumquat zest, vanilla extract, and sugar. Whisk in one egg at a time until fully incorporated. Pour dry ingredients into wet ingredients and stir until combined.

Pour half of the cake batter into the bottom of the pan. Spread two thirds of the curd over the top of the batter, taking care not to let the curd touch the edges of the pan. Pour the remaining batter over the top of the curd and smooth out the top. Pour the remaining curd over the top of the batter. Using a butter knife, neatly swirl the curd back and forth across the pan, again being careful not to let it touch the pan. Sprinkle sugar in the raw over the top of the loaf.

Bake for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to fully cool before cutting into the loaf, as the curd will pour out of the middle unless given time to firm up.

 

KUMQUAT + VANILLA BEAN MARMALADE

INGREDIENTS
1.5 pounds kumquats, rinsed, seeded and cut into quarters
3 cups water
1 pound granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut in half and seeds scraped out

METHOD
Rinse, seed and cut kumquats into quarters. It helps to use a sharp knife to both cut the kumquats and poke out their seeds.

Combine kumquats, water, sugar, scraped seeds and shell of the vanilla bean in a large saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes without reducing heat. Continue to boil until the mixture reads 220° F on a cooking thermometer. As a note, I’ve made marmalade without a thermometer and it’s turned out fine…just be sure you get the mixture boiling long enough before turning down the heat.

Return mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cook until it has transformed into a thick gel like consistency. Allow to cool before storing in clean jars. Marmalade will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator (or longer if you use a preserving technique).

not-so-chiquita banana bread by Annie Jefferson

Last week I listened to an episode from one of my favorite radio shows about the troubled state of the banana and its surprisingly dark history. The sadness of the story stayed with me - I found myself wanting to stay a little longer in the world of the banana rather than just moving on to the next.  The next morning I made my version of the classic banana loaf using three overripe bananas that had been neglected in my fruit bowl for I'm not sure how long. As it baked in the oven, here's what I learned about the fruit we love so much, but know so little, and how its bread friend became such a lasting hit.

Our old friend Miss Chiquita, in all her cheery tropical intrigue, hides behind her colorful skirts a dark history when it comes to the yellow rinded fruit berry that's become so commonplace on the American kitchen counter. As with much of the food we consume here, the supply chain is hazy and there is a great chasm between the grower over there and the eater over here.

Together with Dole, Del Monte and Bonita, Chiquita Banana makes up 80% of banana sales in the US, and these sales are huge - bananas are the most profitable supermarket item, more so than apples and oranges combined. And when a big bunch of ripe bananas is waiting for you week after week on the shelf of your local grocery store for 58 cents a pound, any understanding of the great complexities of such a species or where it comes from is easily glossed over.

In the Southern half of the world – where bananas are grown – the banana as we know it is in grave danger. The variety of banana we eat today is called the Cavendish. There are thousands of other banana varieties, but because of its relatively superior transportability and longer shelf life, the Cavendish is the only one that’s mass produced and exported. This is an example of a monocrop, whereby acres and acres of land are artificially groomed to produce the same exact crop year after year in order to maximize efficiency and profitability.

Bananas are by no means the only example of this kind of singularly focused mass production. Monocultures are the underpinning of the modern industrial food system: wheat, corn, oats, oranges, even livestock all follow this model. Many argue that agriculture was never meant to function in such a narrowly focused state, and the result has been a system that spawns sickness, abuse and destruction.

The banana story is no different. One of the results of this lack of diversification is soil that becomes stale and resistant over time, leading to greater vulnerability to weeds, pests and pathogens. Enter the Panama Disease, a fungus that wiped out the once ubiquitous Gros Michel banana variety – which was slimmer, creamier and more flavorful than today’s banana – and which now threatens, in spite of the widespread use of pesticides, to extinguish the Cavendish we love so dearly. It was a similar monoculture disaster that caused the great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s.

The banana was handed this same fate when in the mid-20th century, the United Fruit Company saw the lucrative potential in its large-scale export. But the banana story takes an even grimmer turn when you learn about the far-reaching impact of United Fruit on the fragile economic and political development of certain Latin American countries, as well as the on the lives of banana growers around the world. Oh, and United Fruit is now called – you guessed it – Chiquita Banana.

If Miss Chiquita is the offender in the great banana crime, then banana bread is the accessory. The first banana bread recipes date back to the 1930s when handy kitchen cabinet leavening agents – baking soda and powder – were popularized in the US. Banana bread grew in popularity in the coming years, aided by what Michael Pollan calls the post-war white flour industrial complex, where, after dwindling demand during the war years, big flour companies met the postwar market with heavy marketing pushes to get America baking again.

Pillsbury initiated the great Pillsbury Bake-Off competition, Betty Crocker invented the ‘just add water and two of your own eggs’ cake mix, and Chiquita Banana, seeing an opportunity for the banana to ride the flour wake, published its first recipe book in 1949, featuring the banana bread front and center (along with some other questionable things, like the Ham Banana Roll).

And so, bananas across America were ripened to a brown rind, flour sifted to a soft grain, ovens set to 350 degrees and kitchens were flooded with steaming loaves of fresh baked banana bread, each promising to be more ‘moist’ than the next

That banana bread took hold as it did isn’t such a long shot when you think about it. Banana bread is so lovable – the homiest of comfort foods, both familiar and accessible. It’s easy to make. It’s hard to make the stuff taste bad. And bananas themselves are loved for good reason. These little packages are filled with a firm, velvety meat that’s lightly sweet with hints of pineapple and brown sugar, and a lingering vegetal flavor, almost like green bell pepper. They’re versatile for their stable structure and moisture content, used in anything from baking to smoothies to sandwiches. They even have a specific use for when they've suddenly become overripe.

But can we still eat bananas (and their bread) in good conscience? In the long term, banana companies need to promote greater genetic diversity among banana varieties. In the meantime you can look for Equal Exchange bananas at the supermarket, which ensure not only that farmers are fairly treated and compensated (fair trade), pesticides and fertilizers are controlled (organic), but also that growing practices follow the principles of “agro-forestry“, which intersperse banana crops with cacao and citrus trees, for example, (a.k.a. polyculture) to protect the natural ecosystems of the farms, thereby controlling disease and preserving the species.

In appreciation of its struggle, this recipe is here to celebrate the great banana, its journey to our hands and the growers that protect and nourish it.

Sometimes straightforward, no frills recipes are the best kind. This one has a few upgrades that lighten up the traditional blueprint. Opting for greek yogurt for extra moisture and a bit of zing, honey and brown sugar for more natural layers of sweetness, and spelt flour for it’s high-protein, low-gluten nuttiness, this recipe won’t have you feeling like you’re cooking from the Chiquita Banana Recipe Book. The quarter cup of millet brings a satisfying crunch to an otherwise homogenous texture, the flaked sea salt an unexpected hit of savoriness, and the open-faced, halved banana up top gives the old loaf a bit of a face lift that will either impress or appall anyone alive in the 1950s.

NOT-SO-CHIQUITA BANANA BREAD

INGREDIENTS
1/3 cup coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup raw honey
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup full fat greek yogurt
3 medium, very ripe bananas, peeled and mashed with a fork
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup spelt flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup millet
1 extra banana
flaked sea salt for sprinkling

METHOD
Preheat oven to 325° F and grease a 9×5-inch loaf pan. Layer a piece of parchment paper at the bottom of the pan.

Using a whisk, beat together coconut oil, honey and brown sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs one at a time, stirring as you go until well incorporated. Stir in mashed bananas and greek yogurt, whisking until well incorporated. Stir in vanilla extract.

Mix dry ingredients, including millet, in a separate bowl. Lastly, switch to a big spoon and stir in the flour, just until combined. Stir in millet.

Pour the batter into your greased loaf pan. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes. Slice the remaining banana in half length-wise and gently place both sides open-faced on top of the loaf.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown on top and passes the toothpick test. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and on a wire cooling rack for another 20 before serving.

SOURCES
The Splendid Table, NPR
USLeap: Bananas, International Labor Rights Forum
Cooked, Michael Pollan
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel