There are times during this chronicling that I play the arrogant card and tell you I have a recipe that trumps whatever it is others are making. I’m afraid this is another one of those times.
I grew up eating banana bread. It’s one of my mom’s specialties, but it’s not her own recipe or a family one, either. It’s Lady Bird Johnson’s. Mom clipped it from our local paper, The Asbury Park Press, sometime in the 196os. I like to picture old Lyndon padding downstairs to the White House kitchen in his jammies on sleepless nights during Vietnam to have a slice of this. Any port in a storm, I guess. I imagine the bread also made a nice dessert if Lady Bird’s guests still had an appetite after all of that barbecue.
While pregnant with my brother, my mother had a nauseous reaction to the smell of fresh bananas. Some forty years later, the smell still turns her stomach; but she can eat banana bread, and was always able to make this as long as she added the bananas to the batter quickly enough. Which she did, and often, for which I’m grateful.
The bread cooled on the kitchen island and there it stayed, still in its loaf pan, with a piece of Saran Wrap over it. We ate it all week for breakfast or for a snack. It was probably the first thing I ever baked. Once I got cocky and added toasted walnuts to the batter and made it into muffins, much to my dad’s delight (and indeed, I was not allowed to make ordinary banana bread ever again). Toasted walnuts, as opposed to those just shaken out of their bag into the batter, make a marked difference in flavor, by the way.
This banana bread recipe is the best because unlike others, which are simply generic batter with chunks of banana here and there, this batter is permeated with banana. Your taste buds don’t have to hunt for bits and pieces of it as you go, which is a sorry way to eat anything.
I substitute whole wheat pastry flour for some or all of the flour it calls for (all-purpose works well) and cut back the sugar. Can’t taste the difference. The recipe calls for sour milk, a quaint addition that hearkens back to when people used everything, even milk that had naturally gone a little sour. (Regular milk, what we buy today at Shop-Rite, was called ‘sweet milk’.) You can use buttermilk or plain yogurt instead of sour milk if you like. Mom used regular whole milk.
The recipe calls for soda. This means baking soda.* It also says a ‘moderate oven'; 350 degrees works fine. (People also used to describe oven temperatures as low, slow, moderate, hot or fast. One imagines chasing their giggling ovens down the street, swearing and balancing a pan full of batter.)
As far as bananas go, the recipe is extremely forgiving; fresh yellow bananas work fine, spotty old bananas even better. Or you can be lazy and put them, in any state, right in the freezer until you want to make banana bread. They’ll turn the color of your bedroom armoire, but that’s okay. When you’re ready, put them on a plate on your counter and let them defrost for an hour or so. Now this is fun: Just tear open one end of each banana, hold it upside down over the bowl, and it will slide right in with a satisfying sploop, just like a boat on the Log Flume.
Here’s the yellowing, stained original recipe Mom cut out of the paper. Note the word written at top, in caps, lest we forget to add them.
This is a wet batter, so it takes a while to bake in a loaf pan. Use a tester to be sure it’s fully cooked. If you don’t feel like waiting, bake it in a shallower brownie pan or make muffins. Bake for 20 minutes to half an hour. Just like cupcakes, they’re ready when you can smell them, when they’re a little golden around the edges, and when they spring back when gently pressed in the middle.
A final note: Adding great-quality semisweet or dark chocolate chips to the bread makes a perfect house gift for people you really, really like or a luxurious treat for you should you not be able to part with it after all.
Here’s the bread the way my mom used to slice it, when we ate it for breakfast on school mornings.
* My cousin once passed along a cake recipe to an aunt who apparently wasn’t much of a cook. The aunt called her and asked, “It calls for soda. Do they mean…like…Coke?’