Brown Sugar Banana Bread & “Back in the Day” with Uncle Arch

I didn’t need another cookbook. But then I was in the grocery store earlier this week, scanning through the cooking magazines. I’d already bought (or received via subscription), and read or perused, all my favorites for the month; so I was hoping that some articles or recipes in a less-familiar (to me) mag would catch my eye enough to warrant a closer read at home. A large illustration in Taste of the South did just that – it was the cover of The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook: More Than 100 Recipes from the Best Little Bakery in the South.

I knew I’d seen it at Barne’s & Noble, maybe even opened it up to a few pages. How could I not? Its authors, Savannah bakery owners Cheryl Day and Griffith Day, adorn the cover. They stand in front of shelves painted a bright blue stationed against an old brick wall painted white, its tiers holding all sorts of bakery paraphernalia and a few cakes. Everything about them is down-home looking, casual and comfortable. He sports tan big-pocketed shorts, a beige/brown plaid shirt and sneakers. She’s in an old-fashioned, red-polka-dots-on-white, short-sleeved dress, with a bit of a dainty feathered or flowered adornment atop her curly-topped head, and dark ballerina-type shoes. A blue apron that I wouldn’t necessarily accessorize with that outfit seems to work exactly right for Cheryl. She balances, waitress-style, a tray of what look like extra-huge cookies. And they aren’t just smiling – they’re laughing!

As I read a bit of the Q&A-formatted article, which highlights the cookbook, a few other things heightened my interest. Number One: their bakery/café is located in Savannah, Georgia, a city I’ve only enjoyed once but could grow to love. Unfortunately, we were driving north from Florida, from visiting various relatives, so we couldn’t stay longer than two overnights – and it happened to be a cold January for the South in 2009 (ok, comparatively speaking, it wasn’t so cold since our adult kids had been through a couple of not-so-great snowstorms during our absence). Still, we toured parts of the city (gorgeous architecture, great history) and managed to stumble across Food Network celebrity Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons. We’d already eaten a yummy lunch at a little café downtown and didn’t plan to go inside, but the hostess happened to mention that we could Just Do Dessert – and that they happened to bake the best pecan pie in the South. Bill had to test out that boast since he loves pecan pie. We did coffee with our pies, Bill nodding happily through his perfect pecan snack, as well as scarfing down what I couldn’t finish of the huge portion of key lime pie I’d ordered!

I also loved the description of the Back in the Day bakery. Homey, a neighborhood place where people gather, a true community deliberately sought by its founders. It doesn’t sound like just southern hospitality – it smacks of “the olden days” when such places existed in neighborhoods everywhere in this country, when fast-food and chain restaurants hadn’t taken over our eating habits and computer screens weren’t our primary source of social networking.

And the recipes! Reviewing the recipe for Chocolate Heaven Cake in Taste of the South convinced me that this cookbook deserved a closer viewing, and that’s just what I did next time I was in a bookstore. I bought it. And the very next day, before I’d even checked out any recipes beyond their Brown Sugar Banana Bread on page 45, I was spending the morning (yesterday) baking the absolute best banana bread I’d ever made, maybe the best I’d ever even tasted! (Of course, I did slightly modify Back in the Day’s bread, creating my own rendition – because that’s what I do, that’s creativity.) I sent three slices over to our daughter Kristen’s apartment for her to enjoy when she got home from work (via Bill, when he went out to run errands), along with some chicken soup made the day before. That evening, she let us know that she’d devoured two of the three slices and gave it a rating of “awesome.”

There’s also something about the expression, Back in the Day…, that got to me. Cheryl Day and Griffith Day didn’t, as you might think, choose it for its nostalgic twist. They liked a different “twist” about it – the play on their last name! Well, we share the last name, but I hadn’t looked at the authors’ names on the book until I read about how they picked it out. I was lost in the nostalgia instead.

Right to left: Aunt Pat (in back), Aunt Dot w/cuz Diane on lap, Grandma Boyd, Uncle Doug (standing), Aunt Pat’s mom & brother, maybe brother’s wife, Uncle Arch (far right)

Back in the Daytweaks memories of the past, of long-gone simpler times. This morning, for example, having spent a good deal of yesterday finishing the two-page “bio” of my Uncle Doug for the “Honor a Vet” ceremony mentioned in my last blogpost, family was on my mind – and for some reason the expression made me think of my Uncle Arch, who wasbriefly mentioned in yesterday’s writing. I imagined him beginning one of his stories with Back in the day..., continuing on with a tale that might be factual, or bear a tidbit of fact, but surely was spun into a fantasy of his own making.

Everyone loved Uncle Arch (real name Archibald, but he’d never tell you that!). He was funny and fun-loving, generous, and quite handsome (as were all the Boyd boys). He could also be unpredictable. My father decided early in his acquaintance with this brother-in-law that he probably ought not to go drinking with him too often – leastwise not unless they were on foot. Mom told me that the first time they did that, “Arch was driving and your father found himself on the road to Kingston or Poughkeepsie or some point far south of Albany, never getting home until the wee hours of the morning!” Dad didn’t drive, so he had no choice but to go along.Two of my funniest memories of my uncle:

Front: Aunt Ann, Uncle Arch; my mom, Dolly. Back: Uncle Doug, Aunt Pat, Aunt Naomi, Walt. (Sometime in the late 1980s?)

When my Aunt Naomi was surprised with a 60th birthday party by her four adult children many years back, Uncle Arch wasn’t present during the “surprising” part but showed up about an hour late. Everyone was saying, “Where’s Arch? Isn’t he coming?” By this time in her life, Aunt Naomi’s husband (Uncle Corley) has passed away but I can’t remember if she was already seeing Walt yet (they would marry sometime later). What I do recall is that there were several people present who did not know Uncle Arch, or not as well as we did, and some of them were Walt’s relatives – so when he walked into the hall, wearing all black duds with a priest’s collar at his neck, many didn’t know he wasn’t some Catholic Father come to bless Naomi! He walked about for a little while, making the sign of the cross and some sorts of holy conversation while those who knew him were in stitches, some with eyes watering from laughter. He definitely livened up the place.

Our yard circa 1989. Brother George, cousin David (sole surviving son of Uncle Arch), Uncle Arch, George’s first wife Sharon, George & Sharon’s son Matt.

Another time – on a visit to their home in Perth, NY (outside Amsterdam) – Bill, our two kids and my mother made the 40-minute trip to see Aunt Ann and Uncle Arch. Adrian, our son, was at that early teen stage where he preferred to be with his friends at home rather than “old” family people, so normally he’d rather not join us when we attended many family events. But he loved Uncle Arch in the same way and for the same reasons my brothers, cousins and I always did. You never knew what to expect from him, but it would often be fun. As we sat in the yard in front of their A-frame, talking about the vegetable garden, Adrian fiddling with an antique wooden mousetrap that my uncle had found somewhere and brought home (totally not humane as it had a trap door that dropped the poor creature to a drowning demise), something about the conversation caught Ade’s attention. Maybe Uncle Arch was testing to see if Ade was listening when he mentioned weird noises out back at night, near the garden. Pretty soon, noting Adrian caught up in the tale, he embellished the story with a spaceship, flashing lights, aliens and an invitation to go for a ride. At that point, we all knew he was BSing us. Adrian grinned back at his great-uncle’s shit-eating grin (you know, like that grin Steve McQueen would flash in The Great Escape, as he strut back into the POW camp, his escape attempt foiled by the Nazis?). Give Uncle Arch a prompt like, It was a dark and stormy night… and off he’d go!

That was Uncle Arch, joke-teller, house painter, Navy war veteran, movie-star good looks, lover of beer and stories. My favorite. Who might’ve started a story with Back in the day… and, on occasions when he pondered some sad or horrific event, would simply say, It don’t make..., leaving off that last word, sense… because sometimes it just doesn’t sense. Especially not the loss of two sons before they even reached middle-age (one murdered, one struck by a car), nor the disabling of their third son and last surviving child. Yet his love of life never faltered, nor his and Aunt Ann’s generous and loving care of their last-surviving son and their grandchildren. Aunt Ann still lives in that A-frame with several of them.

So here’s what I did differently from Back in the Day’s version of banana cake (It was a warm and cozy kitchen… can be your prompt for today):

To start with, I don’t own the prescribed 9” x 5” loaf pan. In my overcrowded baking pans & equipment space (a pull-out shelf over the wall oven, which I don’t dare pull out for fear of several metal objects clattering to the floor below), I could locate a much larger loaf pan (its length measures 9½ inches), a smaller one, and several mini-loafers. I chose the smaller one, 8½” x 4½” x 2¾”, and then buttered up a small ramekin to fill along with the loaf pan (which very nicely provided me with a “sampler” to share with Bill while the larger one cooled). The recipe below, however, is written for the 9 x 5 pan since that’s the amount of batter it will make.

I didn’t put my oven rack on in the bottom of one-third of the oven; I just forgot. It was in the center. Perhaps that might be why my loaf took a little longer to bake. Or not.

The next revision was out of necessity: it turned out I only had ½ cup of light brown sugar but, luckily, an unopened bag of brown sugar sat in the same plastic container on the lazy-susan under the counter. I adjusted the ¾ cup in the original recipe to reflect what I already had.

I love that the original recipe uses mace, an ingredient that I’d found difficult to locate in larger markets around here for a while (all of a sudden, at least Hannaford carries small containers of it now!) – but I reduced the mace, cutting it in half, and then added nutmeg to the mix.

Once I’d mashed up the bananas, I decided to zip a bit of lemon juice on them to stave off the browning while I followed through on the rest of the prep work of gathering together my ingredients (in case you didn’t already know, this is called mis en place).

Back in the Day uses vanilla extract, which would be perfectly fine, but I decided to add vanilla powder instead. I figured the little bit of lemon juice would balance out the loss of a teaspoon of the liquid extract. I hoped adding of lemon, an acidic ingredient, wouldn’t throw off the balance of overall ingredients required for good baking results.

I opted not to add an optional brown sugar sprinkling on top. Good decision – it was plenty sweet enough!

THE VERY BEST BROWN SUGAR BANANA BREAD EVER
Yields One (1) 9-inch loaf

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt (or table salt will do)
  • ½ teaspoon ground mace
  • ½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (regular cinnamon is okay; I use Roasted Saigon variation because of deeper, richer flavor)
  • ¼ cups pecans, toasted then chopped (If you’ve never toasted nuts before, here’s a basic how-to for all three methods; I like either stovetop or oven method.)
  • 1 ½ cups well-mashed, ripe bananas (I had 2 very ripe and 2 just-over-the-green stage of the fruit, about medium sized, that worked out well.)
  • a squirt or two of lemon juice
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla powder

Process:

  1. Lightly grease a 9” x 5” loaf pan with butter or vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugars, baking soda, salt, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and pecans. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix together the mashed bananas, sour cream eggs, butter and vanilla powder with a wooden spoon.
  4. Fold the banana mixture into the flour mix until just combined.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan, spreading evenly across the top.
  6. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until loaf is golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. (NOTE: I don’t own a 9” x 5” loaf pan, as noted above – using the smaller pan, plus a ramekin, might have caused my longer baking time, which was something like 70 minutes – or maybe it was my changes to the recipes. Doesn’t matter to me cuz the bread was supreme!)
  7. Cool loaf in its pan for 5 to 10 minutes; then transfer to a wire rack (although I just put it on its platter, which I placed on a rack).

Can’t wait to bake that Chocolate Heaven Cake – but it will become cupcakes, maybe even for the WomanWords (my writing collective) 15-Year Birthday. I should be toting cupcakes to the Caffe Lena Open Mic in Saratoga Springs, NY on April 4, 2012, where WW will be featured. Readers will be Judith Prest, Kristen Day, Lesley Tabor, Leslie Neustadt, Mary Armao McCarthy, Kittie Bintz, Kelly de la Rocha and myself. Doors open at 7 p.m. – come join us if you’re nearby and free!

Uncles, World War II: front – David; back, left – Archibald; back, right – Douglas

Post-Menopausal Orgasm Cake: Triple-Layered, Gluten-Free and Decadent – Celebrating Dolores’ Birthday

I like chocolate, but I am not a chocoholic (as my daughter and many of my friends might dub themselves). But this cake took me over the top. It is ecstasy personified. And those enjoying my first (successful) attempt at making it were all “women of a certain age” – thus, the above “that-time-of-life” naming.

The occasion: a two-in-oner. First, five of us (Leslie, Lesley, Judy, Dolores and myself) have been meeting fairly regularly to work through a book by Natalie Reid, a friend and member/workshop leader at International Women’s Writing Guild summer conferences that most of us have attended for several years. The book is The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul, and it offers writing and other exercises to help the reader along this path. Natalie defines a spiritual alchemist as “a person who seeks spiritual direction, spiritual connection, and spiritual growth by embarking on a fearless, joyful, and lifelong path to self-knowledge.” It seems that part of our group’s alchemy includes food for the soul as well, literally. There’s always a nice spread of mostly healthy, usually gluten-free snacks on hand (both Judy and Leslie can’t do gluten) to bolster the body along with whatever each of us might define as her “soul.”

Secondly, we decided to belatedly celebrate Dolores’ birthday with a cake, which I volunteered to bake since I’d recently been intrigued by several recipes in Gesine Bullock-Prado’s memoir, My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time (Broadway Books, 2009). After graduating from law school, Bullock-Prado spent several years in Hollywood working for/with her sister (that would be Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock) as president of her company – reviewing contracts, sitting through creative meetings and lunches and all the rigamarole involved in ensuring that scripts get reviewed, films made and more. When her mind began to wander while performing these important tasks… and her mother passed away… she realized she needed to get away from the glitz and fakery of the entertainment capital and follow her own sweet path. She and her husband moved to Vermont, opened a bakery and, voilà, happiness! (Since then, she’s also published a couple cookbooks, one of which – Sugar Baby (Abrams, 2011) – now rests on a bookshelf in my kitchen.)

Bullock-Prado’s cake (encompassing both cake & icing) came down to her from her mother, who called it “the Orgasm Cake”. In the bakery, however, she didn’t call it by her mom’s label. When the it opened, word had gotten around that her sister would be helping out, so lines were out the door and down the block with folks waiting to get in. Therefore, when her aunt provided the recipe to the new owner, she sent along a note saying that she understood she might “not be able to call the pecan chocolate torte ‘the Orgasm Cake’ if you are selling at the store – you might end up with another line out the front door like at the opening!” So it was re-named Helga’s Cake, honoring Gesine’s/Sandra’s mother.

In the end, Leslie (at whose house we meet) and I opted for a full luncheon meal. My reminder e-mail about our gathering said, “Come hungry.” Leslie created a huge, amazing salad along with a fig-based dressing (I’m hoping she provides that recipe to me, perhaps as a “guest blogger” for inclusion as a post on KitchenCauldron), as well providing other sustenance. All in all, a wonderful afternoon – and we never did get around to the meditation and writing this time. We simply ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate. And Dolores blew out a single candle on her cake and opened a few gifts.

Biggest Laugh: Fuzzy dice & and a hula girl for Dolores' Mustang convertible, vehicle bought as retirement gift for herself!

I suggest that you might want to view the video on Gesine Bullock-Prado’s blogsite to see how she puts together her cake. Here’s how I concocted my version:

  • I made the cake pretty much as directed in the book, except I toasted the pecans first for deeper flavor. (Note: in the book, the author suggests using three cake pans, minimum 1½ inch depth, but in the video she uses “cake rings” – which I never would’ve imagined, so check it out!).
  • The frosting portion of the recipe is my own. Bullock-Prado’s buttercream recipe includes egg yolks that aren’t necessarily processed with enough heat to kill bad bacteria if the eggs contain any. I know this is generally not a problem since the incidence of such bacteria is rare nowadays, but I never take that chance with my concoctions.
  • I’d never made chocolate ganache before, although I’ve read plenty of recipes for it. I flicked through a few of them before starting on this cake and based my version pretty much on one in The Moosewood Book of Desserts by the Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter, 1997). How I deviated from the Moosewood ganache? I used two types of chocolate instead of one; I didn’t have as much heavy cream left as they required for their recipe, so I used less and added in the coffee; and I added vanilla powder.

As for the magic, why, chocolate is love. Certainly, there was plenty of love and friendship at our Spiritual Alchemy gathering yesterday. And lots of love of  cake.

That’s my story behind this luscious dessert, with thanks to Gesine Bullock-Prado for her creative inspiration. Make the cake! Buy her books, if so inclined. And here’s to the occasional decadent treat in this sweet life of ours…

Marilyn, holding on to decadence!

POST-MENOPAUSAL ORGASM CAKE
Yield: 8 to 12 servings, depending upon consumers’ appetites for decadence

Ingredients

for cake

  • 12 ounces pecans
  • 1 cup sugar, ½ cup at a time
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 whole eggs; plus 8 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

for frosting between layers

  • 16 oz. mascarpone cheese (it’s like cream cheese, only sweeter)
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  •  ⅔ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder
  • 7 to 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • at least ¼ cup heavy cream (more might be needed)
  • up to 1 teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (or regular cinnamon)

for ganache drizzled topping

  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1⅓ cup heavy cream
  • ⅛ cup strong hazelnut coffee (or regular coffee, if preferred)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla powder

Process

for cake
Note: I baked the layers the night before frosting, covering tops of cooled cakes on individual plates with a sheet of waxed paper, then putting plastic wrap loosely over each cake/plate (but covering everything). This meant I didn’t have to find room in my refrigerator for an entire 3-layer cake, which would be required since part of the filling includes mascarpone cheese.

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Lightly grease (I use butter) three 8-inch round cake pans (mine might’ve been 9-inch – I didn’t measure!). Line the bottoms with parchment paper and lightly grease the papers.
  3. Spread the pecans out in a large (preferably 12”- to allow as close to a single layer as possible) frying pan over a medium-hot heat, allowing to “toast” until they exude a “nutty” aroma. This should take very little time, no more than 3-4 minutes. You might want to stir them about at least one during the process, ensuring you do not burn them.
  4. In a food processor, grind toasted pecans with ½ cup of the sugar plus the salt, until they turn into a fine meal.
  5. Add the 8 egg yolks, the whole eggs, vanilla and baking powder. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.
  6. Whip the egg whites on high in the bowl of an electric mixer using whisk attachment. Just as they begin to gain volume and look white and fluffy (not chunky), add remaining ½ cup sugar gradually (in a slow stream). Continue to whisk on high until whites are shiny and hold a stiff peak.
  7. Transfer pecan paste to a large mixing bowl and stir a heaping spoonful of egg whites to lighten batter.
  8. Gently fold remaining egg whites into mixture until well incorporated (try not to disturb integrity of the aerated eggs).
  9. Divide batter between the three pans.
  10. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until cake springs back when touched (I also used a toothpick to check it). Mine took only 30 or 35 minutes.
  11. Allow to cool completely on wire racks before you release from pan.

for frosting between layers

  1. In a large mixing bowl, beat together all ingredients – but adding heavy cream in small doses, to ensure you get desired consistency, which is a sort-of heavenly-almost-mousse-like quality.
  2. Frost between layers (not the top! that gets the ganache!), making sure to spread frosting all the way to edges.
  3. Set cake aside, awaiting ganache.

for ganache drizzled topping

  1. Place a metal or glass bowl over a pot of water that’s been brought to a boil then heat reduced to a steady simmer. Make sure there’s not so much water in the pot that it will touch a bowl that will be placed over it. (Note: if you have one, you can use a double boiler instead – I own a double boiler but actually prefer the bowl method.)
  2. Place a metal or glass bowl over the pot and put chocolate in the bowl. Allow it to melt, stirring often to prevent it from burning (nothing will take out a burnt flavor).
  3. Meanwhile, pour the heavy cream into a medium-size sauce pan and stir in the vanilla powder. Bring to a simmer. Do not allow it to boil.
  4. When the chocolate is completely melted, remove from the heat and stir into heavy cream. Keep stirring until completely incorporated.
  5. Remove from heat to a wire rack or trivet. Allow to cool to a consistency where it is still pourable but not super-hot (so that it will drizzle onto the cake but doesn’t permeate and make it soggy). If necessary, after it cools a little on the counter, place it in the refrigerator to quicken the process.
  6. Pour the ganache over the top layer, allowing it to drip along the sides. (It’s possible you might not need all of it. In that case, refrigerate remainings in a small container and you’ve got a slightly-soft, homemade candy bar next day; or re-heat it and add to milk as it heats up, for a rich cup of hot chocolate!)
  7. Refrigerate the cake until about half hour or an hour before serving (for best slicing), at which time you should expect groans of orgasmic delight as cake consumers indulge.