About a year ago, well before 7 a.m., I woke to the telltale click of the screen door being closed extremely carefully. We have a slammer of a screen that doesn’t fit its home squarely; the silent slam is a trick only the most well practiced guest can perform. I scrambled up the stairs, more curious than afraid. Half a pink salmon sat in a plastic shopping bag on the shoe bench just inside the door, right next to my XtraTufs. I picked it up, knowing one of our builders, Richie, had left it there for me. His wife had planned to fish that morning, and he knew I was jealous. “Hope you can use this,” said his note. I could still feel the warmth of his skin on the handles of the bag.
At the time, I was testing recipes for A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus: Menus and Stories. Renee Erickson and Jim Henkens and I been tinkering with the smoked salmon recipe, and as I tested and retested, I relied on the builders to be occasional judges—of that salmon, and of the French-style apple cake, and of the braised pork shoulder I served to six or seven of the guys in that last week of remodeling. That final meal was a sort of congratulatory lunch that doubled, for me, as a way of testing a huge handful of recipes in one day and serving the food to a crowd piping hot at midday so it didn’t sag on the counter until dinnertime.
I’m not sure they realized then how closely I watched their faces as they ate, and how much I appreciated that salmon, and another guy’s homemade bacon, and that they somehow kept the water on at all the right times as they intentionally shattered and rebuilt the basement and all of its associated plumbing.
My hope, at the beginning, was to leave the builder a book and some banana bread as thanks. When the bananas had wilted sufficiently on the counter, I tweaked the book’s zucchini bread recipe to incorporate them. The zucchini bread, as it stands, is perfect. (I can brag like that because it’s not my own recipe: It’s perfect, people.) I like it for its spice, and for its fine texture, and for the fact that it uses olive oil, so you don’t have to wait for the butter to soften. But if you’re going to make a perfect banana bread out of a recipe for perfect zucchini bread, a few things about it need to change—the substitution of bananas for zucchini, for example. I gave it a bit more backbone with bread flour, omitted the lemon zest, and tinkered with the top. Ultimately, though, it’s just the same bread, all dressed up for fall. (Honestly, with the exception of my cousin’s killer homemade sugar pumpkin pie, I’ll take a pumpkin-seeded banana bread over pumpkin pie any day.)
It baked up big and beautiful, just like it does at The Whale Wins, so that when you cut it into slabs, it eats more like cake than like a breakfast bread. I carefully sliced part of it for us to keep for snacking, and wrapped the rest in foil for the contractor.
When I signed the book for the contractor to pick up and share with Richie, I suddenly felt like the process of writing this particular book came full circle. Perhaps strangely, it’s often not the book’s release or its appearance on store shelves that makes me feel like a project has grown proper wings. For me, a book’s real launch happens when I thank the people who helped me get ‘er done. When I mail a huge stack of books media rate to the book’s recipe testers, and send copies to my siblings, and bring what I’m starting to call The Big Blue to the coffee shop that offered me a seat for at least three quarters of the project’s writing. The book’s circle will close next week in New York, when I’ll give my last book to a tester coming to the event there on Monday night, and I’ll hug her in person and say thanks for the invisible hours she put into it, too. Only then, to me, will the book be finished.
Yesterday morning, as I twisted the doorknob to put the book and the bread on the bench on the porch, my husband announced that our cantankerous gas stove had shot up a plume of blue large enough to trigger the gates on the emergency stove-buying portion of our bank account. We’ll be getting a new unit (suggestions welcome!), which means we’ll have to saw away the two-inch granite apron securing the existing stove in place, which means we’ll need to call our contractor. I put the banana bread on the dining room table.
“Maybe I’ll just leave him the book,” I told Jim. “Otherwise it would be bribery, right?”
No, it was most certainly not appropriate to leave the contractor a book and banana bread before calling him in again. And, well, clearly I’ll need strength for stove shopping.
Pumpkin-Seeded Banana Bread (PDF)
In the world of zucchini breads, Renee Erickson’s rules all. This banana bread, made by adapting the zucchini bread from The Whale Wins that appears in A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus: Menus and Stories, has the same sweet, spiced background that makes the zucchini bread so addictive—plus a crunchy layer of shelled pumpkin seeds that, for me, act as a harbinger of deep fall. Note that at The Whale Wins, the zucchini bread is pan-roasted in butter and served with crème fraîche and sea salt. That’s not going to hurt this banana bread, either.
Use a good extra-virgin olive oil for this recipe; you’ll taste it in the final product.
Active time: 30 minutes
Makes one 9- by 5-inch loaf
Unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
2 cups (about 256 grams) bread flour, plus more for dusting the pan
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 very ripe bananas
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons demerara sugar
1/2 cup shelled pumpkin seeds
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan, and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, ginger, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt, and set aside.
In another bowl, mash the bananas with a large fork until only pea-sized pieces of fruit remain. Whisk in the eggs and the vanilla. Add the olive oil in three stages, whisking it in until completely incorporated each time.
Gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until no white spots remain. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top evenly first with the demerara sugar, then with the pumpkin seeds. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 70 to 80 minutes, or until a skewer inserted between seeds in the center of the loaf comes out clean. (It should rise right to the top of the pan.)
Cool the bread in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack and let cool completely before cutting into fat slabs.