Mrs. Cooper lived one slice of land away from us on the cul-de-sac I grew up on in north Toronto. A Polish Jew, she loved to cook and bake. The problem was, she usually didn’t use butter in her baking because she wanted to keep things seeming kosher, or at least pareve. Still, many of her recipes made it into my mother’s repertoire, after swapping out the oil or shortening for butter, of course. Banana cake was one of them.
I prefer banana cake to banana bread. What’s the difference? The name says it all. Banana cake is “cakier,” that is, lighter, moister, more delicate, and yet somehow more flavorful than banana bread. Maybe its the lower proportion of flour to other ingredients that allows the banana flavor to come out from under the excess flour in a denser loaf. A piece of cake is not a slice of loaf. Think of the difference between a muffin and a cupcake. (It will come as no surprise that I prefer the latter, too.) This is not to say I don’t sometimes bake my banana cake in loaves (see photo). But you have to use small loaf pans because the loose batter doesn’t have enough structure to support the span of a full-size loaf.
One of revelations of this recipe beyond the distinction between cake and quick loaf is the affinity the flavor of ripe banana has for cinnamon. You wouldn’t necessarily think of it off hand. And tasting the cake you might not even realize the cinnamon is there. But the flavors definitely support each other. And by the third or fourth bite you realize one without the other would produce a less satisfying taste.
Of course, if your bananas haven’t ripened to the point that they are black and mushy, you shouldn’t even think about making this cake. You can prolong the life of overripe bananas a week or so by putting them in a plastic bag and popping them in the fridge, or you can keep them for months in the freezer. When they defrost, they will ooze a curious liquid. Don’t worry about it. Mix it into the mush and follow the recipe.
Although neither Mrs. Cooper nor my mother ever took the time to frost a cake except for a birthday celebration, and even then whipped cream was our favorite accompaniment, it would be wrong not to point out that banana cake is mighty yummy with a cloak of chocolate buttercream.
Adapted from Kitchen Sense
Makes one 9-by-12- or 13-inch cake, two 8- or 9-inch rounds, or 5 mini loaves
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the pan, at room temperature
3/4 cup buttermilk, sour milk, or plain yogurt thinned with milk
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large, very ripe bananas, mashed with a fork (about 1 1/4 cups)
Preheat the 350°F. Butter the pans, line with parchment, and butter again and dust with flour.
In a small bowl combine the buttermilk with the baking soda and set aside—it will froth. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon, and mix well
In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together to form a smooth paste. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and stir in the vanilla. Stir in half the bananas, half the milk mixture, and half the dry ingredients, and mix until incorporated. Add the remaining bananas ,milk mixture, and dry ingredients, and mix just until blended. Pour into the prepared pan(s).
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake has risen, browned, pulled away from the edges, and springs back to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool for 20 minutes on a wire rack. Run a knife around the edges, invert on the rack to unmold, and let cool completely.