In our home, there is a birthday almost every week. Most of these important days belong to dolls or stuffed animals. My daughter or son will announce first thing in the morning: “It's Bunny’s birthday!” This is code for: We want muffins. I keep those tiny boxes of Jiffy mixes on hand for just this sort of occasion. They are fast to mix and bake, make only 6 muffins, and are cheap. In other words, the perfect before-school fake-birthday treat.
My husband picked up some of the Jiffy boxes at the store for us in February but instead of blueberry muffin mix, he bought (gasp!) banana. The kids were appalled. There have been no birthdays in months; the stuffed animals have simply stopped aging.
Now, I am all set to start this baking project and what is the very first recipe in the first chapter (“Quick breads, Muffins, Biscuits and Scones”) of the Baking Illustrated book? You guessed it—banana bread. But there is a wide gap between Jiffy with its banana flakes and honest-to-goodness, gooey, moist, black-stringed banana bread and I am eager to convert the kids.
Though I have billed this as a “mother-daughter” project, my son asks if he can bake with us this week. I am thrilled that he wants to get involved. He asks, just to be sure, “Will you mention me in your blog?” And his true intent is revealed—publicity! Then the phone rings and he is invited to a play-date and is out the door before the ingredients are even out of the cabinets.
Luckily, though, we do have a special guest on hand that makes this first time a “mother-daughter/mother-daughter” entry. My tall, blonde, Southern-accented mom is visiting from North Carolina. She is more accustomed to making things that can be smothered in gravy than those slathered in frosting. Baking is not her forte but once you’ve had her cast-iron pan-fried cornbread, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to use an oven in the first place.
The three of us (or at least the two who can read) choose one of the proposed variations of the bread: Banana-Coconut Bread with Macadamia Nuts. After a week of shooing the kids away from the ripening bananas, we finally get to put them to use. The cookbook suggests using yogurt as the included dairy (instead of milk, buttermilk, or sour cream—the editors have tried them all) and I have bought Greek yogurt without considering how it will fare in the recipe. Oh well, fingers crossed.
While I assemble the ingredients, my daughter helps by fashioning a face out of bananas and nuts. Mom starts as she always does when she is in my kitchen—she sharpens the knives. When she arrives our knives are usually too dull to pierce tomato skin; when she leaves we’re all wearing Band-Aids.
While my daughter and I measure the dry ingredients, my mom casts herself as chopper, dishwasher, and photographer. I wonder sadly what I will do without all of her “ers” when she leaves next week. I am kept busy teaching a four-year-old how to measure over the sink instead of the bowl in case of spills. And how to level off a measuring cup. And not to lick her fingers and dunk them in the sugar. Even with Mom here, I need about three more hands.
We toast the coconut and macadamia nuts in the oven and our home begins to smell like the tropics, or at least “tropical” suntan oil. It’s wonderful. Once the stirring begins, I quickly realize that I am the sous chef. Garfunkel to my daughter’s Simon. I am Ringo. Harpo. Squiggy. She won’t relinquish the spoon; I get to hold the bowl still. She adds the ingredients; I put the measuring spoons and cups in the sink where my mom washes them. There is a hierarchy here and it is not as I had planned. I am thrilled to see her interest and confidence but also am feeling a little left out of the process.
The Baking Illustrated editors suggest the “quick bread” method for mixing which means dry ingredients in one bowl, wet in another, then gentle mixing of the two. They warn that too much mixing means too much gluten which means a dense, low loaf. I ask for the spoon as my daughter over-stirs. “One minute,” she says as she mixes and mixes. We might break a tooth on this bread but she’ll be happy.
I wonder if her interest will remain this strong as this project continues. I see opportunities for teaching non-baking things like listening and taking turns. But today, we relax and just get the bread into the oven.
The loaf turns darker faster than I expect and I end up having to lower the oven temperature midway to get the center of the bread cooked. But when the timer sounds, the bread has done a fine job rising. We let it cool for the minimum five minutes before digging in (though snack time officially ended an hour ago at 5:30pm).
My husband says it tastes amazing, but then he likes anything that's topped with butter. Mom asks for the recipe to take home. My son, home from his play-date, proclaims, “I don’t like it,” before smiling and adding, “I love it!” And, last, my daughter has a bite and says simply, “Yuck.”
Tomorrow, though, she will eat my entire breakfast of buttered banana bread and deny ever not-liking it. Her memory is malleable but I hope we are making some good ones here in the kitchen.