Banana Bread

I’ve been thinking a lot about bananas lately.

And by lately I mean since two Saturdays ago when I began one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences in my life. This past week and a half, I volunteered myself as an orientation guide for the incoming freshman of my University. It was not an easy job to obtain; the application process began last February and essays, group, and individual interviews ensued before 900 applicants were whittled down to 250 FROGS (First yeaR Orientation Guides). And so the moment finally arrived. The three days of training and six days of orientation that followed were, though exhausting (we got about four hours of sleep each night), some of the best of my life. The 18 fellow orientation guides that were in my training group are now my best friends and I make excuses to walk by the dormitory of the 28 first years that I was responsible for introducing to this amazing school, just in the hopes of running into them.

And though the support system of enthusiastic and optimistic people there kept me pushing through the hard week, I may not have made it without bananas either. Our days started with a mandatory 7:00 AM breakfast at the dining hall where I, on autopilot, instantly reached for two or three bananas before any coffee or bagels found their way into my hands. One was eaten immediately, slowly providing the energy to carry on with the remaining 16 hours of my work day. The others went into the backpack; they would have their uses later. The days would continue as my schedule told me. I let my group of first years to amazing presentations on alcohol safety and respecting diversity on campus and other wonderful performances and events. I directed students to correct classrooms where meetings were held. I busted out in song, dance, and mega-icebreaker games for about hours on the quad. But that was the easy part. The hardest two days were move-in where we FROGS spent literally eight hours each day hauling the freshmen’s unending supply or dorm supplies from their cars into their rooms. I lifted case after case of water bottles and Gatorade (anyone ever heard of a Brita pitcher) flimsy plastic under-the-bed drawers, neon pink shower caddies, and sacks of smelly shoes. If I saw a mini-fridge, I referred the parents to one of the guys with much stronger arms than I. The day was like and eight hour session of simultaneous stair climber and weight-lifting. But thank goodness a banana was always tucked away in my bag. And though warmer, mushier, and a little blacker than I had last left it, the sweet sticky fruit was an almost instant cure-all for hunger shakes and aching muscles.

When it all ended on Sunday, it was a bittersweet moment. School would begin the next day and though the other FROGS, the freshmen, and I had only just met, I felt like I had known them much longer. And the thought that we would not be meeting for breakfast the next day was disturbing and odd. But I was free to relax, to get my crap in order, and to finally cook for the first time in ten days. I arrived home, and after unloading my backpack realized that between my roommate and me, we had acquired a collection of 6 bananas over the week, all reaching an alarming state of ripeness. And there was not a moment of doubt in my mind. Banana bread. I found a recipe that was easy as anything and within a few minutes, I had a full bread tin of batter slowly cooking away in the oven. The air filled with the super-saturated sweetness of ripe bananas combined with that comforting heartiness of freshly baked bread and warming cinnamon. It came out of the oven at 10:00 but regardless of my sleep deprivation, I withstood waiting yet another 30 minutes for the bread to cool so I could indulge in a small slice. It was incredibly moist and definitely more on the bread/muffin side of baked good because of its subtle and gentle sweetness. The outer edges became slightly crispy while the center transformed into a mass of billowing, tender crumb. The next morning I ate a huge slice, toasted and slathered with peanut butter and banana slices. A heavenly breakfast after 10 straight days of dining hall food.

Now excuse me if I try to make a slightly far-fetched analogy, but in my state of deliriousness that Sunday night and intoxicated by the smell of baking bread, I came to realize something more about bananas. They are such an odd fruit, not juicy and crisp like most others but dense and mealy and sometimes unappetizingly slimy. Within three days they can go from neon green, to vibrant yellow, to murky brown and black. And with a little practice they can then be transformed from an inedible state to something delicious like bread or ice cream. Funnily enough I saw these evolution patterns paralleled in the people I was with during orientation and realized that bananas are a lot like humans.

My group of freshmen are those green bananas. They aren’t totally prepared for everything yet. In terms of maturation, yes, they’re a little green. But give them time and they’ll soften up. They will learn the ins and outs and slowly come to terms with their new position as an adult. They’ll embrace their place as a college student and the unending opportunities that come with that. In time, they’ll be at the ripeness of their life, like many of the sophomore and junior FROGS that accompanied me in this adventure. They’ll be learning, experimenting, soaking in information. And then they start to be like me, a brown-speckled banana. College is coming to an end and it’s almost time to release myself from the safety net of it all. But after this week, I’ve discovered a lot about myself and have grown tremendously and I now feel good about being in the position of an old banana, at the point where it is time to move on, time to no longer be a college student. In a sense, it’s time to become banana bread. In a year, I’ll go from familiarity into something brand new and hopefully, much better and more complex. Hopefully in a year I’ll come out of this metaphorical oven of a school ready to take on the world.

Banana Bread

I was not in a frame of mind to be innovation at the time that I made this bread so I followed the recipe verbatim. You can see it here. It comes from the Flour Bakery Cookbook and like everything else I’ve made from there was delicious. It is not by any means a difficult recipe and most ingredients are already available. Next time I may try pecan or peanuts and who knows, a chocolate chip or two may sneak in there!

 It should keep for three days at room temperature or can be well wrapped and frozen for up to 3 weeks. Like I said it’s also amazing with peanut butter for a protein rich morning meal but also good for just picking at throughout the day.

1 2/3 cup flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
3 1/2 very ripe bananas, mashed (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 Tbs. sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup chopped, toasted walnuts (optional)
1 tsp. cinnamon mixed with 11/2 Tbs. granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a standard loaf pan. In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.

in a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to mix the sugar and eggs on medium speed for 5-7 minutes. Then, on low speed, very slowly drizzle in the oil until well combined. Add the mashed bananas, vanilla, and sour cream and mix until incorporated. 

Fold the dry ingredients into the wet until the dry is just moistened. Do not overmix. Fold in the walnuts, if using. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar overtop the surface of the batter. Pour into the loaf pan and bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes to an hour until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes then remove from the pan and continue to cool until room temperature. Store as directed in paragraph before recipe.