Food writer Nicola Miller flies in the face of criticism that a liking for bananas indicates an immature palate
It’s quite discouraging when someone tells you in a rather lofty manner that they think a liking for bananas demonstrates an immature palate when they’ve based this opinion on the fact that a lot of us weaned our babies on them.
I don’t think there’s any such thing as an immature palate; tiny babies who are breastfed are nourished by milk whose composition and taste constantly changes, priming them to cope with weaning’s sensory challenges. There’s nothing immature about this start in life at all and nor is a fondness for the banana in adulthood – even if it is a hangover from early childhood diets. When you consider the fact that the old scientific name for the banana, Musa Sapientum, translates as ‘fruit of the wise man’ in Arabic, the case can be put to rest.
It’s a shame that in the UK we’re limited to importing Cavendish bananas in the main. Maybe this is why my friend questions the palate of banana lovers? The Cavendish is a fruit that has been bred for robustness and market forces demand uniformity: it is picked green so it can ripen en route. (It can be quite a challenge to find perfectly ripe bananas in store for when you want to eat them now and not in three days time. This drives me mad). This is monoculture in its worst expression. “Supermarkets and banana companies are providing us with a banana monoculture, and this . . . has been fostered for centuries despite real-life experience that tells us that monoculture is a recipe for disaster,” says Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. As a result, Panama Disease threatens to wipe out the world’s population of Cavendish banana plants, which are all descendants of that original Chatsworth cultivar.
Bred from a plant brought here from Mauritius in the thirties, Cavendish banana plants went on to be grown worldwide, and its fruit imported back into the UK to the detriment of other varieties that were superior in texture, taste and aroma. The flavour of a good banana is a beautiful thing as the chef, culinary historian and author Maricel Presilla tells me: “Some are as sweet as honey or slightly acid, or a mixture of both, which I prefer. And they are all complex with close to 40 chemical markers besides Isoamyl acetate. It takes someone with a great palate to do justice to the complex sensory profile of a good banana.”
There are ways of boosting its banana-y impact if you are cooking with the Cavendish, as I am in this recipe for banana bread. Roast the bananas in their skins prior to mashing and make sure the fruit you use is really ripe: the skins need to be well speckled with brown and the banana flesh soft. I’ve also incorporated toasted sugar, using a technique I learned years ago after spending time working with a pastry chef and now popularised by the American baker and author, Stella Parks in her book, Brave Tart. Using toasted sugar in baking provides the caramel flavours that ordinary brown sugar can lack and mitigates the bland sweetness of white sugar. The toasting can be done in advance and the sugar kept in an airtight container (and you can roast several kilos of sugar at once using this technique) or you can do the entire recipe in one go because the sugar toasting, banana roasting, and cake baking happen at the same temperature. Toasted sugar can be used in any recipe that calls for white sugar and unlike bought brown sugar, will not affect the way your cakes or cookies bake when you use it instead of white.
I don’t want my banana bread cloyingly sweet so I frost it with a topping made from cream cheese and passion fruit instead of buttercream, an idea I have nicked from Waitrose whose (now discontinued) banana cake with passion fruit frosting was a bit of a favourite when I couldn’t be bothered to bake. In my version, the frosting is a lovely shock set as it is against the cake’s warm toastiness. I adore the tartness of passion fruit and the fecund, spooky nature of its pulp and seeds which looks like something we shouldn’t really be eating. Thomas Fuller wrote: “He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters,” but slice open a passion fruit and imagine you are the first person to ever contemplate eating one. Like the banana, they are ridiculously exotic to those of us who live in a cold climate.
Toasted sugar and banana cake with passion fruit frosting
350g banana (I roasted four small bananas which weighed 400g in their skins and yielded 350g flesh)
1 large egg
60ml vegetable oil
325g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
120g caster sugar
80g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
3 passion fruit, halved and seeds and pulp scooped out
Beat the butter until soft in a medium bowl then add the cream cheese and beat that in too, Now, mix in the icing sugar. Beat in 2 tablespoons of passion fruit juice and seeds and place in the fridge.
Grease a 26x12cm (approx) loaf tin. Turn the oven to 1500C/3000F and let it warm up.
To make the toasted sugar:
Pour the sugar into a ceramic or glass dish small enough that it coats the base. Place in the oven and toast until the grains turn ivory, which will take about an hour checking the sugar frequently and stirring to prevent the build-up of steam, which can cause the sugar to become moist. This will also ensure even toasting. Carry on toasting for another two hours, following the same process until the sugar has turned a warm brown in shade.
Rinse and dry your bananas and line a baking tray with foil or parchment paper then place the unpeeled bananas on top. Prick a few holes in the banana skins and bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until the skins are black and shiny. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. (You can place the bananas in the oven with the toasting sugar for the last half hour of its cooking time.)
Peel the cooled bananas and mash their flesh in a large mixing bowl. Add the milk, vegetable oil and beaten egg and stir them together. Now add the flour, baking powder, sugar and fold them in until the batter is well combined.
Pour the batter into the loaf tin, smooth the top with the flat of a knife and place in the oven to bake for one hour. Keep an eye on it as oven temperatures do vary. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before icing.
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