Saturday, September 24, 2005

Banana Muffins

When I taught creative writing at UC Santa Cruz, I used to start the semester with a free-write on oatmeal: 15 minutes of pen-to-paper disgorging about comfort and obligation, about the scrubbing of burnt pot bottoms and the brown-sugar smell of home. And I'm thinking that when I teach again, I'm going to do the same exercise, but with bananas.

Find me someone who doesn't have an opinion about them. Really. Birdy bites into a banana with the kind of urgency usually reserved for quenching a long thirst--and I cannot relate at all. Mine is not a revulsion as powerful as our friend Megan's, for whom the specific sight of teeth marks in a banana can send her screaming from the room (this is the same person who gags if she touches a piece of velvet). And yet I can be peeling a banana for Birdy, and when those weird strings get on my fingers, and I try to shake them into the sink and they whip around like alien tentacles, grabbing at my hand and wrist, really I could barf. Or that creepy point that pulls off the top? With the grey thing in it? *Shudder.* I can happily eat a banana only if it is almost green, utterly firm and tangy without the slightest hint of bruised ripeness--especially if it's sliced in a bowl with sour cream and maybe a teeny sprinkle of brown sugar. ("Bananas and smetana" Michael's Grandma Sylvia called that particular dish. *Shudder.*) Which is more often than Ben can stand to eat a banana. Which is never.


And yet Ben and I feel completely different about banana bread. The first summer I lived away from home, for example, I baked banana bread almost every day. I was sharing a tiny apartment with a boyfriend and a friend, and our only baking pan was an old Danish butter-cookie tin and our only cookbooks were Moosewood and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Have you ever made that Moosewood banana bread? Oh I loved it. It has tons of butter and tons of unusual flavors: nutmeg and coffee and poppy seeds that you use to coat the buttered tin. The boyfriend probably found it flawed in some or other way ("Is it always so nutmeggy?") but my friend loved it as much as I did. (Then again, this is the same friend who once said admiringly, with her mouth full, "Oh my god, you made this?" And I had to say, "The rice? I did.")

Now, however, Michael is the banana-bread maker in our household, because he is in charge of the bananas. "Are you going to deal with your bananas?" I always say, when their brownness threatens to contaminate everything in the kitchen--and especially the bread--with rotten-banana flavor, and he says, with his perennial good nature, "I am." And so he makes muffins. His recipe is based on one in the Cooks' Illustrated Best Recipe cookbook, and it's excellent: moist and flavorful, crisp-edged but tender, and with just he right balance of banana flavor and a wholesome graininess.

Plus, Birdy loves to mash bananas--a great job for a kid with a potato masher. Oh, but if I were doing that writing exercise right now? I wouldn't write about her mashing bananas like the competent, helpful six-year-old that she is. I wouldn't even write about her first birthday, and the banana cake my mom made her, the one that had the strangest texture--like concrete stirred into pudding and baked. Instead I would write about Birdy as a baby, opening her baby-bird mouth to receive spoonfuls of mashed banana. Every time I spackled some in, she would smile her banana smile and clap her banana hands, her brown eyes sparkling. Then, when she was all done, she would lean up out of her highchair to plant a big sticky banana-scented kiss on my grateful cheek. Oh, bananas! I love you. I do.

Banana Muffins
Makes 2 dozen
Active time: 25 minutes; total time:

Like all muffins, these are best the first day--but they're pretty good the second day too, which is lucky, since this recipe makes lots. The kids bring them to school for snack.

1 1/3 cups white flour
2/3 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
2 tablespoons wheat germ
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
scant teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
3-4 very ripe bananas, mashed (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/3 cup yogurt (we use Stonyfield Farms Banilla, but any fruit flavor is good, as is vanilla)
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, chopped coarse (Michael swears that toasting them isn't worth the bother, but I am secretly disagreeing here: toast them on a baking sheet at 350 until fragrant, 5-7 minutes)

Heat the oven to 350 and grease and flour two regular-sized muffin tins.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, wheat germ, sugar, baking soda, and salt.

In another bowl, mix together the mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla. Now use a rubber spatula to scrape this mixture into the dry ingredients, and fold it together, along with the pecans, swiftly but well, just until the dry ingredients have disappeared.

Now fill your muffin tins about 2/3 full: Michael uses his patented "scoop and bloop" method, that involves scooping up some batter on the rubber spatula and scraping it against the muffin tin to fill it. Bake the muffins for 20-25 minutes until they are golden brown and just firm to the touch--or until a toothpick comes out clean. (You don't want to overbake them, obviously, but I want to say that anyway.) Cool in the pan for a minute before you tip them out and finish cooling them on a wire rack.

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