What I know for certain

We’re in finishing touches territory now over at the new apartment. We have been for weeks. It’s been a strange and uncomfortable time to be focusing on the nitty-gritties of a new home, one with strong, unbending walls that stand on dry, solid ground. But in a way, it has also felt oddly appropriate. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a home a home, and that feels right.

A friend of mine asked me recently if we’re “prepared” for our move, and I was reminded that moving to an apartment right next door doesn’t look like other moves. I’m not even sure if it qualifies as an actual move. It feels like cheating, like swaying our hips an inch to the right and having the nerve to call it “dancing.” No boxes. No packing tape. No moving trucks or crumpled newsprint. Instead, we have a small army of friends who will help us carry our stacks of dishes and maneuver our dressers the few steps down the hall. To those of you in the throes of a real move right now who, halfway through this paragraph, armed yourselves with all manner of rotten vegetables: Ready, aim, fire! We deserve it.

There’s just one tiny drawback to moving into the next door apartment: the next door construction site. For the most part, it’s no big deal. I don’t mind the hammering, scraping, or sanding one bit. It’s the fumes. With the hardworking crew slapping down final layers of paint, and finishing (and re-finishing, and re-re-finishing – don’t ask) the floors, we’ve been treated to a dizzying array of them over this last month. From solvents to stains to sealants, it’s mean stuff. And, because of where the shared walls between our current and soon-to-be apartments line up, the point of entry for these fumes is our kitchen. That’s even meaner. I had planned on having some last hurrahs in there before our move, but it’s hard to hurrah when you’re busy trying not to pass out.

Most recently, it was the particularly toxic fumes from multiple floor coatings of polyurethane that got us. We did what we could: Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate. We pushed open all of the windows, circulated the air with electric fans, and set up camp in the room that’s as far as can be from the kitchen, the room that happens to be our bedroom. The climate in here was, well, brisk, but for the most part, all that ventilating did the trick. We dressed in scarves, hats, and wrist worms. There were pizzas delivered, and pad-thai picnics on the bed. I can’t complain.

But sometime last week, I snapped. I awoke in the six o’ clock hour to the distinct aroma of nothing. The most recent coating of polyurethane had fully dried, and by my calculations, I had approximately two hours before the workers would arrive to lay down the next coat. I tore into the kitchen, found a sad and blackened pair of bananas, and my mind went where it often goes when I need something quick, foolproof, and deeply reassuring. Banana bread. There was no time to mess with add-ins like nuts, or chocolate, or even the crumble topping of my beloved standby. Plus, in my kitchen-deprived state, I was itching to try something new. I flipped open my laptop and started clicking. I found a recipe for banana cake that Dorie Greenspan posted on Serious Eats a few years back and, detecting little difference volume-wise between her cake and most banana bread recipes I’ve met, I went for it. I’m going to tell you something now that you no doubt already know: When time is short and you must put all of your eggs (and bananas) in one basket, Dorie Greenspan is precisely the person you want in the kitchen with you.

The banana bread looks rather moody there, I know, but I assure you that it is really quite cheerful. It just happened to be particularly dark and grey that morning, and the fresh fumes that had already begun to seep into the kitchen by this point didn’t give me much time to focus on things like proper exposure. Or to focus, period, as you can see.

I’ve mashed up many a black banana for many a banana bread over the years, but this recipe stands alone. The two ingredients that set it apart are yogurt and butter. I typically favor quick bread recipes that rely on oil for their fat, for the straightforward reason that loaves made with oil are moister and spongier than their butter-rich counterparts. In this oil-less recipe, though, the yogurt picks up the slack. At least I think that’s what’s going on. What I know for certain is that this loaf is as moist as ever, perhaps the slightest bit dense, but in a good way. Meanwhile, the butter is left to do what butter does best, which is simply to be its fabulous buttery self. The flavor of the butter in this recipe is so direct that it caught me off guard. It doesn’t hide behind cinnamon, or honey, or orange zest. It marches right up, and with a firm handshake, announces itself in caramelized edges that smack of tarte Tatin. The beautifully burnished loaf smells of brown butter and bananas which, come to think of it, is exactly how banana bread should smell, isn’t it? Slice after slice, I had the distinct feeling that I was eating banana bread in its truest, purest form. I think of banana bread as a classic, but until I tried this recipe, I’m not sure I ever really understood what that meant. It’s as if all of the other banana bread recipes that I have ever baked were riffs —albeit, often virtuosic riffs— on this one.

Hi, banana bread, old friend. It’s nice to meet you.

Have a good week, everyone.

Banana Yogurt Bread
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s recipe, “Banana Cake Big and Small” (which, incidentally, sounds like the title of my new favorite children's book that hasn't yet been written), posted on Serious Eats.

I’ve wrestled before with the question of where to draw the line between a quick bread and a cake, and I’m not the only one. Honestly, I’m stumped. I baked this recipe in a loaf pan, so I’m calling it a “bread.” But I’d eagerly follow Dorie Greenspan’s lead and bake it in muffin tins or a Bundt pan (double the recipe for the latter) and call it a cake. Works for me, either way. I happened to use 1 cup of all-purpose flour and ½ cup of whole wheat flour because it’s what I had within reach. (The new bag of all-purpose flour was up on a high shelf and, as you know, time was of the essence.) I liked it with the whole wheat, and I’ll bake it again this way. The original recipe calls for 1½ cups of all-purpose flour.

1 c. all-purpose flour
½ c. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 very ripe bananas, mashed (about ¾ cup)
½ c. sour cream or plain, whole-milk yogurt (I used yogurt.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and generously butter and flour a loaf pan.

Whisk together the flours, baking soda, and salt, and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat at medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla and the egg, and beat for about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low and mix in the bananas. Mix in half of the flour mixture, then all of the yogurt, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Don’t worry if the batter is a little lumpy.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 55-60 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then carefully turn out the loaf onto a cooling rack. You’ll want to let the loaf cool considerably so that it has a chance to get its bearings and doesn’t tear beneath the knife. Serve warm or at room temperature.