When we were kids in Century during the Kennedy/Johnson years, Saturday night was a special family time, and as we sprawled on the den rug (oval, braided, brown) with eyes glued to “Perry Mason” or “Gunsmoke” on our 1954 DuMont black-and-white TV (with only two knobs – power/volume and channels), Mama would occasionally put down her knitting and slip into the kitchen while we weren’t looking, and the next thing you know there would be a happy treat: a platter full of oatmeal cookies, or a caramel sheet cake, or – one of my favorites – a fresh, warm loaf of her “best ever” banana bread. In retrospect, those were magical times, but in the moment, they sadly passed by largely unnoticed and unremarked.
Nevertheless, it is certainly true that my inspiration to cook in the first place grew out of my determination to taste again the delectable treats Mama used to whip up and pass around, combined with my realization that the only way that was likely to happen would be if I learned how to make them myself. Of course, no matter how skilled I become – and you do continue to get better, even after decades – the real secret, always, is mixing in the love.
So, this, in large part, is Mama’s recipe and method. The only thing I’ve added over the years is the vanilla. And, for what it’s worth, this is the recipe I’m asked for more than any other, so I’m delighted to publish it here to make it even easier to access.
Now, a couple of notes: I know this is a quick bread and most recipes call for using oil rather than butter, but it really does make a difference in the taste. That said, once you opt for butter, the creaming of it comes into play, so I go through all the traditional cake-making motions beginning with creaming the butter with the sugar, adding eggs singly, etc., as detailed below, but it is a longer process. Finally, for some reason, Mama’s recipe says to mix the soda and buttermilk together and then add at the end, but I find that this encourages the chemical reaction to take place too quickly with the result that the cake can sometimes sink into itself, so I’ve reverted to the time-honored process of adding the soda when sifting the dry ingredients and alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.
Finally, In a depression-era gesture, Mama used to use the butter remaining on the inside of the butter wrappers to wipe the pans and grease them, but I find modern butter papers don’t hold onto enough of the butter for it to work the way it did in her day.
This banana bread is exceedingly moist, and freezes well. And, for the best result, either buy your bananas a few days ahead and let them ripen till generously covered in freckles (or if you can find them, buy them that way in the market). It really does make a huge difference in the final flavor.
As with all these Cedar House recipes, this is for 10 people, or two loaves. Simply halve the ingredients for only one, but, hey, make two and freeze one and you’ll be glad you did. Trust me.
Cedar House Banana Bread
Preheat oven ONLY to 325° (this was one of Mama’s secrets: bake it long and low…)
Generously butter two 9”x5” standard loaf pans then, with scissors, cut two wax-paper liners for just the bottom of the pans and press in all around till transparent from light coating of butter on top and bottom. (The waxed paper was another one of Mama’s tricks for ensuring the cake would come easily out of the pan, and she never baked a cake of any sort without it. Regardless of the size or shape of your cake pan, if you turn it upside-down, lay the waxed paper on top and score around the edges of the pan with the back side of a kitchen knife, you can then easily cut along the score lines in the wax to have an instant liner in exactly the right shape and size.)
2 sticks unsalted butter
3 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2/3 cup buttermilk
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 ripe bananas, mashed to a shiny liquid
1 cup pecans
Prepare ingredients: Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Mash bananas and set aside. Chop pecans and set aside
Cream butter and sugar in large mixer bowl using blade attachment until it is light, fluffy and no longer looks grainy from the sugar.
Add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Add vanilla, mix thoroughly.
Add flour mixture one-third at a time, alternating with 1/2 of the buttermilk, so that you begin and end with the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple of times along the way as needed.
Add bananas and mix thoroughly. It is important to mix bananas in well since they have a tendency to sink to the bottom of the batter while baking in any case, and the better they are incorporated with the batter, the better. (That said, don’t overbeat, since that will over-stimulate the flour.)
Add pecans and mix just until well blended.
Pour batter into pans. Bake at 325° for 90 minutes (or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean; ovens vary, please check first). Cool on sides on wire rack before
wrapping in plastic wrap for freezing or storing. (Turning on one side from the moment it comes out of the oven was another one of Mama’s tricks. She believed it helped to discourage the cake from sinking into itself any more than necessary, and it does seem to help. See photo.
Bread can be served warm out of the oven (the best!) or room temperature, with a dollop of fresh cream whipped up with a little sugar and a few drops of vanilla.
Oh, and be prepared for it to disappear even before Matt Dillon’s bad guys are run outta Dodge!