Tally Me Banana...

No matter how much kitchen experience I accumulate, no matter now many new techniques and new recipes I get under my belt, there are certain dishes that continue to elude me. I can make an excellent panini, for instance, but I can't seem to tackle a humble grilled cheese sandwich. I've never been able to make a decent stack of pancakes; they're either burnt on the outside and raw on the inside, or anemic all over and dried out. I've also never baked a decent loaf of banana bread.

I've tried many recipes over the years, including my mother's, which my friend Sarah fondly recalls from our shared childhood, but for some reason, whenever I try to replicate Mom's banana bread, it always comes out dry. Every recipe I try seems to have it's own problem -- too dry, moist to the point of being wet, lack of concentrated banana flavor -- you name it. Still, I'm reluctant to give up on banana bread the way that I have with pancakes (I've completely outsourced pancake cookery to Justin along with most breakfast foods). Not only is banana bread delicious, but it also provides a vehicle for disposing of uneaten fruit, and I always seem to run out of steam halfway through a bunch of bananas.

Lately, I've been craving a warm, comforting slice of banana bread, so I went out and purposely bought more bananas than I knew we could eat, and bided my time until they inevitably started to turn blackish-brown. For a recipe, I turned to Cook's Illustrated, who seldom let me down in baking matters, though I do prefer the famous chocolate chip cookie recipe from the New York Times to their brown-butter version. Given that their recipes are often overly fussy and complicated, this banana bread wasn't any more difficult to assemble than your standard loaf.

Even so, I think I went astray when I was making it. Wise bakers will tell you not to overwork a quick-bread dough, and I did just that. Instead of just barely folding the wet ingredients into the dry, I was forced to stir and stir again, as every subsequent agitation of the dough revealed a new, unincorporated pocket of flour. Unsurprisingly, I ended up with a loaf that was rubbery and tough.

The flavor of the banana bread was good, and it was sufficiently moist without being soggy. Aside from the texture (which I firmly believe was my own fault), my only complaint was that it could have used more nuts. Then again, I tend to think that about most desserts, so I've altered the recipe to reflect my own personal taste. I'm not ready to write off this recipe just yet. After all, it was still quite tasty after a brief trip through the microwave, complete with a slathering of butter. I have hope that this recipe has brought me one step closer to the end of my banana bread quest. With a little less stirring, I may just have a perfect banana bread...

Best Banana Bread
adapted from Cook's Illustrated

2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 c. toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
3 very ripe bananas, soft, darkly speckled, mashed well (about 1 1/2 c.)
1/3 c. plain yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
6  tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
1. Grease bottom only of regular (not nonstick) 9-by-5 inch loaf pan, or grease and flour bottom and sides of nonstick 9-by-5-inch loaf pan; set aside.
2. Combine first five (flour through walnuts, if using) ingredients together in large bowl; set aside.
3. Mix mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with wooden spoon in medium bowl.
4. Lightly fold banana mixture into dry ingredients with rubber spatula until just combined and batter looks thick and chunky–it might look at first like there is too much dry ingredients and not enough liquid, but don’t fret! It will come together, just keep folding gently but consistently. Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan.
5. Bake until loaf is golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 55 minutes to an hour. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack.

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