In my house, about once a month, the age-old problem rears its head. You know the one. First, it's the deepening golden color, then the slight softening, followed by the brown speckles, and finally the pungent fragrance that will not be ignored. Oh sure, you get plenty of warning but, ultimately, your hand is forced. Bananas. Overripe bananas. We've faced this before, we'll face it again, but there's always the question . . . what should I make out of those brown bananas before they become fodder for the trash can or compost heap? Personally, I've had enough of quick breads and muffins for the moment. I can't remember, though, the last time I made a real banana cake. I've made a fabulous banana pound-cake in the past (and I should really do a post about that recipe someday--it's a winner), but I'd like to bake something a little more interesting than another fairly typical pound cake.
Such were my musings yesterday as I paged through my new, bright red, long-awaited copy of Nick Malgieri's most recent book, The Modern Baker. (Bakers, is there any more unalloyed bliss than spying a corrugated Amazon box on your front porch leaning shyly against the lone Adirondack chair, and just knowing that it contains a fantastic cookbook you've been craving for months? Certainly there is not.) Malgieri is a well known pastry chef, an educator at New York's Institute of Culinary Education, and he writes a mean cookbook. Once in a while he pops up on TV, demonstrating this or that technique. He always looks kind, friendly, and quite a bit like your favorite uncle.
He must have a soft spot for home bakers because a lot of what he writes is geared toward simplifying--or maybe I should say streamlining--things for those of us who bake in the real world. That is, those of us who bake without huge, uncluttered, stainless steel tables on which to spread out our work, without benefit of towering portable shelves filled top to bottom with premium spices of every description, without industrial lighting that would make a neurosurgeon put on his Ray-Bans, and without access to a walk-in cold-pantry the size of a two-car garage stocked top to bottom with fresh you-name-it. He manages to write about food in this uncomplicated way without completely emasculating his recipes. I don't know how he does it . . . he's from Newark, NJ . . . maybe that has something to do with it? Pretension doesn't appear to be in his vocabulary. What more could we ask? Anyway, I like him. (Did you hear me, Chef Malgieri? I LIKE YOU!)
Before I clam up about him I just have to mention another book he wrote, Perfect Cakes. Why? Because it is a perfect book. Get it from the library, folks, or take the plunge and buy it. Its recipes are a bit more involved than that of some of his other books, but the gorgeous stuff you could produce using Perfect Cakes alone would easily fill several high-end pastry carts. My two favorite items from this book thus far--I've tried about eight of the recipes and there are many more I still want to try--are the Dark-and-White Chocolate Cheese Cake (unbelievably good; I've made it a couple of times for Thanksgiving) and the carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (I alter a few components of the recipe slightly, but as a base it's the best-tasting carrot cake I've ever had; I am going to do a post about it one day).
Someday, when I go completely around the bend, I'm gonna do a "Julie Powell" and systematically bake every single thing in that book over the course of a year . . . holy moly what a concept . . . I'm entering a trance-like state at the very thought of it . . . staring off into space right now . . .
Enough already! Getting back to the banana cake.
I used the recipe for Banana Coconut Rum Layer Cake from The Modern Baker, but I had no rum on hand (more's the pity) so left that ingredient out. It's a nice cake that, in terms of taste if not texture, reminds me completely of my mom's banana chiffon cake (the recipe for which seems to have vanished into the void, unfortunately). I wasn't feeling coconutty yesterday, so I decided not to use Malgieri's recommended coconut-coated whipped cream to ice the cake. What I did use to ice the cake was a hybrid I concocted out of a very reliable and fluffy buttercream recipe. Not insanely sweet, this buttercream's special fluffiness sets it apart from most customary bakery-style buttercreams. I wanted to see how this icing would taste if a little high-quality cinnamon and cocoa powder were added in with the sugar, and if a couple ounces of softened cream cheese were whipped in as well. That experiment was a raging success and I spread the luscious result on the banana cake. I made just enough icing while experimenting to fill the middle and coat the top, but that was the perfect amount--not too much of a good thing.
Thus I present my half-dressed banana layer cake, filled and topped with my hybridized version of fluffy light-chocolate and cinnamon buttercream. I've reworded the Malgieri recipe for brevity, but have left out no critical info. (The icing recipe, printed below, is a completely new adaptation I made of one I had used previously in a post that I called "Deep Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Fluffy Mocha Frosting.")
Nick Malgieri's Banana Layer Cake
(originally from his Banana Rum Coconut Layer Cake recipe, pg. 248 of The Modern Baker)
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
Preheat oven to 350, and place a rack in the middle.
2 and 1/3 cups of All Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed (I only had light brown and used that; it was fine)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 cup mashed banana (mashed by hand)
2/3 cup milk (I used whole)
1 tbsp. dark rum (I didn't have this on hand but the cake was still great; if you don't love the flavor of rum I wouldn't hesitate to leave it out altogether!)
Butter the bottom and sides of two 9" cake pans. Line the bottom with a parchment or wax paper disk, and then butter the disk.
Combine well the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl; set aside.
Combine the butter, sugars, and vanilla in the bowl of a mixer using the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light in color and texture, about 3 to 4 minutes. Beat the eggs into that, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a separate bowl, mix together the banana, milk, and rum (if you're using it), until blended.
On low speed, in the mixer bowl, add 1/3 of the flour mixture. Stopping as needed to scrape down the beaters and bowl, add in the banana mixture alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. Then, increase the speed to medium and beat the batter nonstop for 3 minutes. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops. Bake on the middle rack of your oven until the cakes are, as Chef Malgieri instructs us, "well risen and deep golden, and feel firm when pressed in the center with a fingertip, 25 to 30 minutes."
Cool the cakes on a rack, in their pans, for 5 minutes. Remove from pans and continue cooling right side up on racks; remove the parchment/wax paper.
Jane's Fluffy Light-Chocolate & Cinnamon Buttercream Frosting
This recipe makes at least enough to frost an entire cake--top, middle, and sides--or to frost 24 cupcakes.
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
4 oz. of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 cup and 2 Tbsp. heavy cream
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla
2 lbs. of confectioners' sugar, sifted (approximately 8 or more cups)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon (my favorite is Penzey's brand Vietnamese Cassia; it's pretty strong)
3 Tbsp. cocoa (Dutch process or regular, whichever you prefer; I use Dutch)
In a bowl, lightly mix the cinnamon and cocoa powder into the sifted confectioner's sugar with a fork or whisk. Set aside.
In a large mixer bowl, beat the butter and shortening on medium speed until light and creamy.
Add the sugar gradually to the shortening, and continue creaming until well blended. Add in the cream cheese, salt, and the vanilla, still mixing at medium speed at this point.
Pour 6 oz. of the heavy cream slowly and gradually into the bowl. Increase the speed to high and beat until the entire mixture is light and fluffy, at least a couple of minutes. Stop every now and then to scrape the bowl and the beaters.
Reserve the remaining 2 oz. of cream to use just in case the frosting seems too thick to you, or too dry. Add it in at your own discretion. Frosting too thin? Add in a bit more confectioners' sugar. Be sure to refrigerate, or freeze, any leftover frosting.
When your cake is cooled . . . frost it, slice it, eat it. Go bananas, if you feel like it.
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