Not (Banana) Bread Alone

Anu Lakhan rhapsodies over baked goods


Poor Marie Antoinette, misunderstood and vilified these many years because of that unfortunate bread/cake comment. Far from the insensitive, politically incorrect thing history would make her, here was a woman who understood that there is only one kind of world worth living in: one with baked goods.

What miraculous alchemy results from the combination of flour, water, and a raising agent of some kind? No wonder the word “bread”, for centuries, has been a catch-all for every kind of sustenance, material and divine. And if the creator of heaven and earth thinks it’s good enough for his marketing thrust, it’s surely good enough for the rest of us. (An establishment in east Trinidad shares my philosophy: it’s called the Daily Bread Bakery.)

In homage to the benevolence and ubiquity of baked goods (just a couple of their god-like qualities), I propose a brief tour, via the senses, of this greatness, worked by hands, forged in ovens, and presented to adoring masses the world over.

Food on the whole offers an incomparable sensory experience. But with baked goods — desserts, pastries, pies, cakes — this experience is distilled. Prose versus poetry might be the simplest way to describe it. All the senses are delighted, and the pleasure is somehow heightened by the small portions of these treats we consume, relative to other meal components.

First of all, they smell like heaven. For many of us, long before we begin to appreciate other fine things, the power of baked goods already holds sway, largely due to the aroma that wafts out of neighbourhood bakeries. It is a smell rich with promise, unlike some other possibly pleasing scents — say, flowers, which are to be appreciated for themselves (apart from allergy attacks, they promise little else). With baked goods you know that the source of that gorgeous golden scent is quite likely something gorgeous and golden and infinitely edible. Good bread has a smell that makes you feel like you’ve walked into a warm room off of a cold street. Buttered, it can smell like sunshine.

Cakes are a different matter entirely. With the exception of plain, wholesome sponge cakes, instead of comforting, the scent of some cakes can be quite maddening. Soaked in essence or spices, the smell bursts from them as from ripe fruit. Sumptuous chocolate confectons like Sacher tortes carry the perfume of decadence.

Then there’s sound. If you’re not in the habit of listening to your cakes as they emerge from the oven, I don’t know that there’s much point in trying to explain the language of baked goods. Something between a sizzle and a bubble, it is a deeply satisfying sound that says, “I am here. I am ready. I will not disappoint.” (Why does no one else say such things to me?) But better than the sounds of the finished product are those of the preparation stage. Can I really be the only person who tries to emulate in her own kitchen the sounds made on cooking shows? On the closed, miked set, batters sound thicker and creamier; the wooden spoon against the ceramic bowl so strong and confident; sugar and butter being creamed is an exquisite torture.

At first sight, can anything bring about, even in the most jaded, such a reaction of wide-eyed awe as an impressive array of baked goods? Imagine the best birthday cake you’ve ever had. Or the sight of laden bakery shelves at opening time — there is a reason the traditional bakery has little need for fancy displays: it is impossible to improve upon the perfection of row after row of uniform shapes. I once went into a new patisserie in Port of Spain, and for a few breathless minutes could do nothing but make a small “O” with my mouth at the sight of a chocolate profiterole tower. Again, here is a promise that can deliver.

We may be united in our visual and olfactory enchantment by things newly emerged from the oven, but the textures we prefer will show our individual hearts. I doubt that there is a personality type that cannot find a baked item that describes it. Dark, complex, heavy: fruitcake. Homely, lively, dependable: sweetbread. Whimsical, frivolous, mild: cloud cake. (Possibly unknown outside my family, the cloud cake is a lemon sponge so light that one questions its classification as a solid.) Hops, Trinidad’s favourite bread roll, offers one of the most rewarding tactile experiences: round and smooth, the crust crunches satisfyingly and gives way to a warm, feathery inside. It is simplicity at its finest.

Then at last: taste. Sweet, savoury, sharp, delicate, pure, mingled, satisfying, teasing — if the palate can identify it, there’s a baked good that was designed for it. The range of taste experiences is too vast to itemise here; indeed, to attempt this would be to devalue the infinite possibilities. However, you will find that if you allow yourself (for the sake of contemplation, and not necessarily as a life philosophy) to equate taste with feelings, you can begin a discussion. Cookies: happy. Shortbread: relaxed. Flaky pastries: dreamy. Jamaican hard dough bread: comfort. Hot cross buns: nostalgic. The list is endless.

 

Banana bread recipe

The beauty of this recipe is in the not-so-subtle deception of the name. Fruit, bread — how wholesome. In reality, this is a gorgeous dessert masquerading as health food. Here is the satisfying decadence of a cake that melts in the mouth and melts your heart; here also is the smug self-righteousness of eating something that sounds like it has to be good for you.

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
6 ounces sugar (brown or white, your call)
4 ounces butter
3 ripe bananas
1 egg
handful of walnuts
dash of Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

The main thing here is finding the right bananas for the job. Look for bananas that you would not normally consider eating. They should be almost painfully ripe and not fit to be consumed in an uncooked state. Measure the dry ingredients; cream the butter and sugar; add the egg, essence, and bitters, then the bananas; mix the lot of it, throwing in the nuts at the end. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes at 350º F. Lazily elegant served warm with copious amounts of tea. Starry-eyed, first-kiss wonderful with fresh cream or vanilla ice cream.