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May 13, 2016

Flour's famous banana bread

         - Oh hallelujah, our problems are solved. We have banana bread.
                             ~ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, The Simpsons: Eight Misbehavin’

I have been a passionate and devoted customer of Flour Bakery + Cafe since it first opened in Boston's South End in the fall of 2000. Chef Joanne Chang succeeded spectacularly in her desire to create a local bakery that would become an essential part of the neighborhood - my friends and I spent so much time at Flour that the staff knew us all by name, and would start working on our (sadly predictable) orders the moment we walked through the door.

Flour has become my golden standard for all other cafes of its type. While some have come close (Bill's in Sydney, Joseph in Vienna), none offer the exact combination of casual comfort, delicious food, and lovely people on both sides of the counter. Of course, none ever could - my memories of Flour Bakery are inextricable from memories of delicious meals shared with some of the dearest people in my life; of loud laughter and long conversations; of peaceful rainy Sunday afternoons spent lingering over a good book. It's that kind of place.

Happily, it is possible to recreate a small part of the Flour experience at home. While it is difficult to choose a favorite from the wide array of delectable desserts and tasty treats on offer, Flour's banana bread has fully earned its moniker of “famous”. Both delicious and easy to make, it has become a regular in my repertoire of casual bakes. This banana bread is incredibly tender and moist, with a soft, fine crumb and lovely banana flavor. It keeps well for several days, and makes great toast. Substituting rice flour1 for regular flour produces a gluten-free version that is just as scrumptious as the original.

One of the keys to the recipe's success lies in the egg technique. The long whisking time creates excellent aeration, and the eggs become a second leavening agent in the batter, adding volume the way egg whites do in a soufflé or an angel food cake. Resist the temptation to cut the whisking time short, especially if doing it by hand.

The bread tastes best when made with really over-ripe bananas.
Their overpoweringly cloying, slightly fermented flavor mellows and softens once baked. The recipe works well with either fresh or frozen bananas. If you find yourself eyeing with sadness and resignation a neglected and rapidly blackening banana, simply peel it and freeze in a Ziplock bag. When three others have joined it, defrost overnight in the refrigerator without removing from the bag, and use as directed in the recipe. Do not be alarmed if the defrosted bananas look rather unappetizing - the browning and excessive moisture are normal, and the final result will be fabulous. 

Chopped walnuts are omitted from the recipe - a personal preference. The nutty flavor, which complements bananas really well, is incorporated by grinding the nuts into a meal. Using the nut meal in place of nut pieces has the added benefit of providing chewiness and heft to the gluten-free version, replicating some of the texture normally created by the gluten strands. 

The ingredients can be thought of as belonging to one of three groups - dry, wet, and eggs. Both the dry and wet ingredients can be measured directly into their respective bowls; the dry can even be prepared in advance and stored in an airtight container in the freezer until needed. The eggs and accompanying ingredients are mixed in two separate steps. The result is well worth the effort of rinsing two additional bowls.

As with most baking, all ingredients should be at room temperature. If you forgot to take the eggs out of the refrigerator in advance, put them, still in their shells, in a bowl of hot tap water. By the time everything else is portioned out, the eggs would have warmed up. Measure out the sour cream or crème fraîche first, and it will be ready to incorporate when the batter comes together.

Flour's famous banana bread
Adapted from Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe
Makes 1 loaf (8 very generous slices)

Set the oven to preheat to 180°C / 350°F.
Prepare the loaf pan. Oil, butter, or spray with baking spray, and line the bottom with parchment paper. If the parchment paper does not lie flat, crumple it into a ball and smooth out again - this removes the stiffness and makes is easier for the paper to conform to the shape of the baking pan.

If using nuts (highly recommended, especially for the gluten-free version) , grind in a coffee grinder2, spice grinder, or mortar and pestle into a coarse meal:
  • ½ scant Cup (1.8 ounces) / 50 grams walnuts or pecans
Pulse if using an electrical appliance, and give it a shake every few pulses, as continuous grinding will produce a nut butter instead of ground nuts. The final texture should resemble that of coarse cornmeal; it is better to leave some larger pieces than to over-grind.

In a bowl, mix the ground nuts with:
  • 1½ Cups / 210 grams unbleached all-purpose flour -or- gluten-free flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a second bowl, combine:
  • 4 very ripe bananas, peeled (around 14 ounces / 380-400 grams)
  • 2 Tablespoons / 50 grams crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Mash and blend together very well, using an immersion (stick) blender, a potato masher, or a fork. Alternatively, puree in the food processor. If using previously frozen bananas, be sure to incorporate any liquid that has separated from the fruit after defrosting. Set aside.

In a third, large bowl, combine:
  • 2 eggs
  • ⅔ Cup / 135 grams granulated sugar3
Beat the eggs and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy - 5 to 7 minutes with a stand mixer / 10 minutes with a hand-held mixer / 1 episode of The Simpsons if working manually with a whisk4.

When the egg mixture is pale yellow and has increased in volume, very slowly drizzle in:
  • ½ Cup / 100 grams neutral oil (canola, grape seed, rice bran, vegetable)
The goal is to create an emulsion without deflating the eggs. The best way to do this is to add a teaspoon of oil at a time, incorporating well before adding more.

Once all the oil has been incorporated into the eggs, add the banana mixture and stir to combine. Do not worry if bananas have turned brown - oxidation will not affect the flavor.

Add the flour mix to the egg-banana puree. Gently fold in using a rubber spatula or a large spoon. The batter will be very liquid.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan, and place into the preheated oven.
Close the oven, and lower the temperature to 160°C / 325°F. Bake for 60 to 80 minutes, until the top is firm when you press it, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove banana bread from the oven, and cool in the loaf pan, on a wire rack, for at least 15 minutes. Take the bread out of the pan and let cool on the rack completely before slicing, another two to three hours.

The banana bread will keep very well for several days. Fold the parchment paper from the bottom up to cover the cut end of the loaf and prevent it from drying out. The loaf can be kept wrapped in plastic, sealed a plastic bag or in the breadbox; I keep mine on the counter for easy access, and it stays fresh for several days.

The whole loaf, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, can be frozen for up to two weeks. Defrost at room temperature for about 10 hours.

1 I used rice flour because I had it. Another gluten-free flour should work just as well. Rice flour is a great pantry staple - it can replace breadcrumbs in meatloaf and meatball recipes, and thicken stews or pie fillings without the risk of raw flour flavor. If you have a coffee or spice grinder, you can even make your own - see next note.
2 An inexpensive coffee grinder is a fantastic kitchen tool. By grinding whole spices as needed, you get the freshest flavor and save some money, too. To clean the grinder between batches, grind a Tablespoon or two of rice together with a teaspoon of baking soda. Shake out well, and wipe with a slightly damp towel. Let air dry completely before next use. And by omitting the baking soda and increasing the volume of rice you can produce your own rice flour. Grinding granulated sugar will result in a fine sugar powder, ideal for dusting cakes or making simple icing.
3 The original recipe calls for 1 Cup plus 2 Tablespoons / 230 grams of sugar, which I find much too sweet. I have successfully made the bread in the past with as little as ½ Cup / 100 grams of sugar. Reducing the sugar in a recipe will affect not only the taste, but also texture, moisture level and crust browning. Try it as written first, and increase or decrease the quantity to fine-tune, if desired.
4 I have whisked the eggs by hand several times. It takes close to 30 minutes, and your arms will be very tired. It helps to switch hands frequently, and think of it as an excellent arm-toning exercise.

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