Recipe Box: Banana Cake vs. Banana Bread

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.

Loaves of banana cake waiting to be frosted.

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.

Very ripe bananas.

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.

Even riper bananas. These are frozen. Freezing turns them completely black.

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.

Banana Cake
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.

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Filed under Recipe Box, Taste Tidbits

5 responses to “Recipe Box: Banana Cake vs. Banana Bread

  1. Mars

    Great recipe. I tried it and it turned out very fluffy. Next time I will only use 1 cup of sugar, I found it to be too sweet with the 1.5 cups of sugar.
    Thanks for the recipe!

  2. So glad you liked it. Should be fine with less sugar, too. Just had a lovely, light, and delicious banana bread as part of a brunch pastry basket at Little Park in TriBeCa (NYC). It reminded me of the lightness of this cake.

  3. love those 'naners

    Hi there, I made this cake last night for my boyfriend’s birthday. It was very tasty! I have to say though, It came out much denser than I was expecting–not light or fluffy at all. I followed the directions to the T, but I did notice that the buttermilk/baking soda mixture didn’t froth. Could that be the reason? If so, any ideas why the mixture didn’t froth?

    • Mitchell

      Thanks for letting me know. I’m not quite sure. It should froth (the acid in the buttermilk reacts with the soda). Was the buttermilk cultured, tart? (And you used baking soda, not baking powder?) Otherwise I wonder if you may have beaten the batter too much, thereby activating the gluten and making the crumb tighter (and denser) than it would be otherwise. A higher protein flour would cause the same thing. A tight, dense crumb. I’m puzzled because it should be quite light. Though I know the situation all too well. I just made a recipe from Bon Appetit for a malted chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday and I followed the recipe exactly and it didn’t work. Exposed all over the oven. Then I made it again, measure the pan and everything, and it exploded again. I have no idea what I could have done wrong twice in a row. So I wrote the magazine. Waiting to hear.

  4. Laura

    This sounds wonderful, I love banana bread but for some reason never thought of a cake. Thank you for sharing!

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