Baking thoughts and banana bread

(pictures to come shortly)

I started baking at an early age. My mother maintained a house of healthy food choices so cookies and fresh breads factored in only special times of the year like birthdays or the holidays. I figured out when I was ten years old that the novelty of a kid in the kitchen overrode any concerns about extra fat and sugar in our diets, so I jumped right into Baked Alaska from the Joy of Cooking. That was a big hit and I followed up by playing around with any recipe that looked good to me – the key theme being that it was something I wanted to eat. I spent a lot of time browsing through my Mom’s recipe box and cookbooks for all the traditional and soon-to-be favorites.

All the women on my Mom’s side of the family were wonderful bakers and I have fond memories of huge sugar and spice cookies at Christmas and heavenly rolls at Thanksgiving meals. My Dad’s mother’s blueberry and cherry pies have a special place in my heart. I come by my love for “fresh-from-the-oven” treats honestly.

It wasn’t until after I’d been cooking professionally that I had difficulty baking. I trained to cook using recipes as a vague guidance tool, relying on smell and taste and sight more than anything written down. It made me a better chef, however when I tried to apply those same skills to baking, I would hit wall after wall. Sometimes things would work out great, but the minute I was up against a recipe that required precision measuring to achieve a scientific result, I would screw it up. I wasn’t disciplined enough to bake regularly and exactingly, and I didn’t find it fun any longer. Baking (as opposed to cooking) can be daunting, even for the well-seasoned cook. I’ve always said that cooking is art and baking is science. You can also think of it as a right brain vs. left brain situation.

My change of heart came with age and wisdom (stop laughing). Over the years I’ve found several wonderful cookbooks and programs that really explain the science behind WHAT and WHY things happen in baking. With a growing understanding of the science behind it, I was able to relax and play with baked goods recipes yet still have good and consistant results. I needed to develop some vegan recipes for Grins Cafe(holla!) when I opened it in Aug of 2002 , so that really exposed me to daily observation of cause and effect in baking. I rarely level off my teaspoons or “spoon” the flour into the measuring cup, and most of the time I can get away with it.

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, and to work with those of you who might want to change a traditional recipe into a vegan recipe. Here are some recent questions:

From Stasia: I had a night FREE, ALONE (well baby asleep) and three mushy bananas.
So I actually had the urge to bake and make some banana bread! I’ve
never made it, but I was so excited, got the recipe etc. etc.

Then I was thwarted. First of all, I can’t find the hand mixer. I know
we had one, but it’s gone missing. Scott’s mom gave us a kitchenaid-y
thing thing from 1970, but I don’t know how to use it and I can’t find
the beater attachments. Then, the recipe said whole wheat flour and I
only have all purpose white flour. It also said unsweetened coconut —
I only have sweetened. So, disregarding the lack of mixer problem,
which you can’t help me with, can you tell me about flour and coconut
and banana bread? Does it really matter?


First off, no good banana bread recipe should have coconut in it, unsweetened or otherwise. Secondly, any time you have a baked goods recipe that calls for whole wheat flour and the title of the recipe isn’t “whole wheat bread”, be suspicious. Don’t get me wrong, whole wheat has its place in baking, but for a quick bread like banana bread (or zucchini, poppyseed, cranberry-nut, pumpkin – any sweet bread without yeast), you need every bit of lightness of texture you can get. It doesn’t have yeast to rise and let off gas to create air bubbles, it doesn’t have beaten egg whites to lighten the dough. Banana bread relies on the chemical reactions of the leavening (baking soda, baking powder, salt) and to a lesser degree any eggs (unwhipped). Whole wheat flour will really weigh it down. Many folks, myself included, will include some proportion of whole wheat (pastry) flour to have the end result be somewhat healthier, but be wary of a recipe that calls entirely for whole wheat. My guess is that it will land solidly in the “OK for hippy food” category. That could be a disappointment if you are craving traditional banana bread. So, I’m betting that the recipe you turned up is an unusual one (hippy!) – where did it come from?

To answer your questions specifically (and a little less snippily), on the rare occasion when a recipe like the one you found calls for whole wheat flour and you only have APW (all purpose white), the substitution won’t be any kind of problem. It will pretty much be trading up (at least texturally) to use the APW – your end result will be lighter, more delicious cake-like. if you want to sub whole wheat flour in baked goods when the recipe calls for APW, the first time you change the recipe try changing out only 1/4 – 1/3 of the flour called for with whole wheat. And use whole wheat pastry flour for any baked goods other than crusty yeast bread. WWP flour has been more finely ground, so it’s better suited to give you lighter results.

As for the coconut, it won’t be a big difference in a quick bread that is supposed to be sweet to use sweetened cocount. You can cut down a bit on the sugar called for in the recipe if you want to compensate for the extra sweetness. Nothing to worry about there.

Banana bread is very, very high up there on my food heirarchy. Quick breads are named appropriately – they should be pretty easy to make, use only a few bowls (wet and dry), and be similar to putting together a batch of muffins. Just like muffins, you don’t want to stir the batter too much or your final result will be tough. This makes the use of a Kitchenaid mixer (as cool as they are) superfluous and almost dangerous. If you can’t make a quick bread using a whisk and wooden spoon, your recipe might be too much trouble or not really in the quick bread category.

One of the great things about bananas is that if you have any past their prime, you can peel them into ziplocks and freeze them. Then all you have to do is defrost them when you are ready to bake. Remember how many bananas are in your favorite recipe and try to freeze that many per bag. If you have a lot of “juice” in the ziplock once it’s defrosted, I try to incorporate it into the wet ingredients one way or another…I hate to waste all that good flavor.

My favorite trick with banana and pumpkin breads is to sprinkle some sugar on top of the loaf before it goes into the oven. This helps to make a wonderful crunchy sweet crust on top. I’m not a big fan of nuts in my baked goods (especially cookies and brownies), but banana bread is one place where if you skip the walnuts, you’ll be sorry. Save your pecans for your salad. But toast the nuts before you add them to the recipe. This is really important any time you use nuts. Unless they are just on top of what you are baking, they won’t benefit from cooking in the oven in the batter. Toast the nuts both when you’ve opened the bag for the first time and then if you take any out of the freezer later on. Toasting brings out the natural oil in the nuts and makes them fresher/crisper and have a more well-rounded taste. A basic recipe is to spread the nuts on a sheet pan and put in oven for 10-ish minutes at 350-ish degrees. Watch them closely – the high natural oil content means that they will burn easily. If you start to smell them, check them. If they start turning brown, take them out. They will crisp up as they cool, so don’t taste them hot to determine doneness, just go by color/look and smell.

Hmmm, now you’ve got me thinking about banana bread. I have two favorite recipes, so I’ll have to throw some together here soon. I’ll post the recipes here when I do. Thanks for the idea!


1 Comment »

  1. Shauna said

    This looks really yummy!!! You should enter this banana bread contest! You could win a $50 gift card to Sur La Table!

    There aren’t very many submissions yet, so your chances of winning are good! I’d enter it myself, but I’m the one sponsoring it!!! haha!!

    Plus, you’ll get traffic back to your website by entering the contest and that’s always a good thing!



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