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Even though I've written about (and loved) many quick cakes and muffins and their ilk in 10 years of Genius Recipes — including at least three banana breads (1) — the recipe my mom always made when I was growing up is the one I turn to first and most. The original version, without my extraneous tips, was barely over 30 words long, unattributed in a spiral-bound community cookbook. The title, plainly: Banana Bread.
This simplicity is no doubt key to its longevity, for my family and for me. I can make it anytime I need a gift or a pick-me-up — or both, since it makes two loaves, one for us, one for them. Or whenever my freezer gets precariously full of overripe bananas and they start to fall at my feet.
I know I can get it in the oven in about 15 minutes, with whatever baking supplies I have on hand. It can weather my whims and experiments, as I switched from creamed shortening to melted butter for speed, wedged it into the pans I had nearby, and tinkered with flours and sweeteners and mix-ins freely, knowing there would always be more chances to get it right. It was even my daughter's first birthday cake of the pandemic and of her life — no frosting but plenty of chocolate chunks and crunchy sugar on top. It fits into our life, no matter what life has put in front of us.
As I've started asking more about its history in my family, it seems this recipe has been just as bendable for my relatives. My Aunt Peggy first shared it with my mom from a book called "A Plan for All Seasons: A Menu Cookbook" by the Stanford Junior Women of Pasadena. The notes on my mom's hand-copied recipe (2) say they first made it at Christmas 1983, which means it was one of my first cakes, too.
There's a dedicated column for the adaptations my mom made in the 1980s to protect my dad's cholesterol — oat bran for flour, honey for sugar, faux eggs, no salt. (They ultimately returned to the original, deciding to fight cholesterol in other ways.) After my aunt's cookbook collection was swallowed by the Oakland fire in 1991, my mom combed thrift shops and used bookstores to find replacements. In her new copy, Peggy's notes in the margins document sprinkling the walnuts on top for a "crunchy rich topping." Sometimes, they say, she adds chocolate chips, too.
Now, no matter what version I turn out, my daughter will eat outrageous amounts before we realize what's happening, so I think she's destined to get attached to this recipe for life, too. And like me, I hope she'll make it her own.
Recipe: Kristen's Family Banana Bread
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Makes: two 9x5-inch loaves
- 1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for buttering the pans
- 6 very ripe large bananas (frozen and thawed work great)
- 1 3/4 cups (350 grams) granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 2 1/2 cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 cup (170 grams) chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips (optional)
- 1 cup (113 grams) chopped nuts, such as walnuts or pecans (optional)
- Turbinado or other sugar for sprinkling on top (optional)
- Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter two 9x5-inch loaf pans. (A loaf pan plus an 8-inch cake pan also works well, but note that the shallower pan will bake faster.)
- In a large bowl, mash the bananas with a potato masher.
- Mix in the butter, sugar, and eggs well.
- In a medium bowl, sift (or whisk) together the flour, salt, and baking soda, and add to the banana batter.
- Stir just until the flour mostly disappears. Add the optional chocolate and/or nuts, then stir just until no streaks of flour are visible.
- Pour into the buttered loaf pans (feel free to mix and match pans, but no pan should be more than ⅔ full). Sprinkle a thin layer of turbinado sugar on top.
- Bake until the top is dry and deep golden brown, and springs back when lightly pressed with a finger in the center. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out dry or with moist crumbs clinging (and maybe chocolate streaks, but no wet batter), 35 to 45 minutes, or less for shallower pans.
- Let the loaves cool until warm, about 30 minutes, then unmold, or let cool fully in the pan (handy for storage). Store tightly covered at room temperature.