If you've been baking for any length of time, you've almost certainly made a banana nut bread in some form. And if you've been baking for a long time, or if you're a prolific baker, you probably have come to rely on a favorite recipe, one you turn to time and time again. That "old reliable" recipe you go to when you need to use up a few browning bananas or bring a comforting quick bread to a friend or a coffee meeting and you're not feeling particularly adventurous.
I have such a recipe. I've used it forever. I love it dearly. It produces a beautifully domed loaf of mildly sweet, moist banana bread with the most perfect crumb I've ever seen in a quick bread. (And yes, stay tuned, I'm going to share that one in an upcoming post.) But when I saw a recipe for Banana Nut Bread in theBaking at Home with The Culinary Institute of Americabook, I was intrigued.
Banana nut bread is so homey, so simple ~ it seemed out of place there, even among the other quick bread recipes (which included delectables such as Smoked Provolone and Thyme Muffins and Dutch Baby with Spiced Peaches). I took a closer look and saw something that jumped out at me. Orange zest? Hmm. Yes! I set out my ingredients and went to work.
There were a few significant differences between this recipe and my old faithful. For one thing, this recipe called for less fat, no added moisture, less egg, and a blend of sugar and honey. And the most striking difference? The recipe called for only 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder to leaven two loaves of banana bread. I read it through again. A few times. I was tempted to adjust the amount, but ultimately, I decided to go with the superior wisdom of the CIA and see where this mysteriously small quantity of baking powder would take me.
Turns out, it didn't take me far, volume-wise. The loaves rose only about 1/2 inch while baking, to an unimpressive height of about 2 1/2 inches fully baked. The smell was heavenly ~ buttery banana and orange. I waited for the loaves to cool 10 minutes, popped them out of their pans, and let them cool overnight on racks. (I baked these at about 11 p.m.)
In the morning when I cut into the loaves, I found an extremely dense crumb, studded with walnuts and banana chunks, flecked with orange zest. The texture was moist and velvety, more like a fruitcake than a typical banana bread. That explains it, I thought. Odd, maybe, but delicious. I decided to refer to it as banana-nut cake when serving it to anyone outside my immediate family, to help explain the unorthodox texture and appearance. I gave some to friends, some to my parents, and my teenage son at nearly half a loaf by himself. I was asked for the recipe.
And then, a few days later, I received an e-mail from my wonderful contact at Wiley, the book's publisher. He forwarded me a list of errata compiled by the publisher. There were a few mistakes here and there, as there always are in cookbooks, which would be corrected in subsequent printings.
I scanned the list. There was the banana nut bread. Turns out that 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder isn't enough leavening for two loaves of banana bread! The recipe should read 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, plus 1/2 teaspoon baking soda! What was I thinking? As a cookbook editor by trade, I know darn well that mistakes get made in recipe text all the time. So why, why did I go ahead and make this as is when the mistake in this recipe was so glaringly obvious?
A side-by-side comparison: Corrected version on the left
Well, for one thing, I readily admit, I was thinking, It's the CIA! There's a certain amount of credibility that name alone garners, so I was prepared to take the recipe on faith. Quite honestly, I don't presume to know more than the CIA. For another, I figured, what's the worst that could happen? So, my bread will be a little flat. And it was. And we ate it anyway, and it was delicious. A third thing at play here is that I'm not approaching this cookbook under regular circumstances, where I might tweak a recipe here or there according to my preferences. I'm baking through it, playing by its rules. If it says 1/2 teaspoon, I add 1/2 teaspoon. Recipes fail. Sometimes it's the cook's fault; sometimes the book's fault.
Photos Below Are Corrected Version
To follow up, I made the corrected version of this recipe. It rose higher, filled the pan as expected. When I cut into it, the crumb was open and there were air bubbles distributed predictably throughout, thanks to the power of chemical leavening. The aroma was, again, absolutely wonderful.
The final verdict? Everyone with an opinion to share preferred the first version. The richness of the more compact loaf was appealing because it was so different. Upon tasting the second version, the prevailing comments were along the lines of, "This version is much drier." It wasn't dry, though. It was just that the first version was so dense, it was a tough act to follow.
Would I make this recipe again? Yes ~ in fact, I think I'd make them both. The first when I need a comforting banana-cake fix; the second when I require a lighter, more conventional banana bread. The citrus in this recipe is really special ~ if you like orange, I encourage you not to skip it.
Is there a lesson to be learned here? Sure there is. Baking is full of lessons. If you have honed your baking skills, trust them. If you know what works and what doesn't, go with what you know. And if you want to go out on a limb occasionally, please do. That's where serendipity tends to perch.