Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Nellie's Walnut Banana Bread

A tasty treat enjoyed by people of all levels of Edwardian high society.

Did you know banana bread comes from England? I didn't, before doing this blog post! I would have guessed it was an American invention, but according to my new favorite cookbook, it was actually popularized by the English. Good for you, guys! And to think most people don't have very nice things to say about English cooking.

Banana bread is one of those items I usually buy from our local gigantic, commercialized farm stand - they make a really yummy chocolate banana bread I always have to fight my brother off to get a slice of it - and it's not something I'd really considered trying making myself until this recipe caught my eye. Making tea breads is definitely one of my favorite things this blog has taught me how to do, and since banana bread is such an iconic baked good, it seemed like trying my hand at it was long overdue.

So, what makes this something Nellie O'Malley might have enjoyed?

Bet you're not surprised to see this cookbook back so soon, are you? I couldn't shut up about how much I loved cooking from it last time I featured a dish from it, and I've been eagerly thumbing through it trying to find more recipes to do... and falling in love with the idea of doing just about all of them!

This recipe is the Abbey Walnut Banana Bread, and the author explains that not only is banana bread an English invention, but it was a treat enjoyed by both the upstairs and downstairs residents of Abbeys like Downton. The cooks would bake it for the elaborate teas held in the Abbey, and then if there were left overs, it would be toasted for the servant's breakfast the next morning, making it a treat that transcended social boundaries. Bananas were still a luxury item at the turn of the century, even if they were less so than they once were, so it's unlikely that Nellie would have enjoyed banana bread or bananas by themselves often before her family was hired by Samantha's neighbors. By the time she and her sisters are adopted by Gard and Cornelia, this might be a treat she'd be used to eating with tea or for breakfast!

During the Edwardian period - and for most of human history - white flour was difficult to produce and therefore expensive. Even wealthy families probably wouldn't have eaten treats that contained pure white flour on a daily basis, and the whiter your bread was, the richer you were. People often dyed flour to make it look whiter, which sounds pretty horrifying until you remember that we still eat foods with artificial flavors and coloring in it. It's just interesting to know that trend goes back so far! Because you want this bread to look brown anyway, this recipe uses whole wheat flour. The bananas are enough of a sign that you've got some cash to spend on this treat.

Just like all breads - and cakes, and most baked goods - you start by separating your dry and wet ingredients. Two and a quarter cups of whole wheat flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, one teaspoon of baking soda, a half teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon of cinnamon and a half teaspoon of nutmeg are all whisked together. According to the cookbook, cinnamon and nutmeg were popular spices of the period, and they definitely add some good flavor to the bread.

Here's the heart of the recipe: the bananas! You take three bananas, peel them (obviously!) and mash them into a good pulp. I really tried to pulverize these to make sure they'd incorporate well with the rest of the wet ingredients.

Once the bananas are nice and smashed up, I transferred them into my stand mixer and added in the other wet ingredients. One of the interesting things about this recipe is that instead of using butter, margarine, shortening or fat, you use olive oil to make the bread moist! I'm all for this, as olive oil often adds a really nice layer to any baked goods you used it in. Three quarters of a cup of brown sugar, three quarters of a cup of olive oil, one beaten egg and two teaspoons of vanilla get added to the bananas, and this all gets beaten together. The recipe recommends letting this beat on a low setting of your stand mixer for a few minutes to make sure the bananas are really broken down.

The flour mixture gets added in a little bit at a time until it's all combined. This came together quickly and was a pretty liquid batter compared to some of the other cakes and breads I've made on this blog. Once it's all mixed together, you add in a cup of finely chopped walnuts... which is a lot of walnuts. I actually scaled back to three quarters of a cup of walnuts, mostly because I didn't want to steal all my mom's walnuts.

The batter gets poured into a pan that's lined with parchment paper, according to the recipe, but I don't like using parchment paper so I just greased my pan.

This gets baked in an oven for 350 degrees for about fifty minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into it comes out clean.

When I first pulled this out of the oven, I worried that this was going to be a repeat of the yogurt cake I made a few weeks ago. I didn't want the center to be gooey and uncooked! But my worries turned out to be for naught. Banana bread is definitely supposed to be a moist, gooey bread, and this one didn't disappoint. I left the bread to cool in the pan for fifteen minutes as instructed and it popped right out of the pan.

Unlike most breads I've made, this one didn't have a thick crust at all. There's enough of one to give it some body when you slice into it instead of the whole thing just falling to pieces on you, but the inside is definitely soft with a nice crunch from the walnuts, which is basically the ideal texture for banana bread. One of the nicest things about this banana bread was while you could definitely taste the bananas, it didn't taste artificial or too banana-y. Breads that are sweet but not too sweet make perfect breakfast snacks or treats for tea, and this definitely fits those bills.

Toasting it turned out to be very tasty, too! Obviously the servants at places like Downton knew what they were doing. Because the bread can be a little bit crumbly, I'd recommend cooking the slices in a toaster oven or an oven with a toast setting if at all possible. I was nervous putting it in my toaster might end up with it stuck in there or with crumbs falling all over the bottom and catching on fire.

Long story short, this was a great treat and went very quickly in my house. Once again, Edwardian Cooking proves itself to be one of the best cookbooks I've ever owned, and introduced me to some great food history. I hope you enjoyed these tidbits, too!

This blog might turn into a cook through of this cookbook if I'm not careful.


  1. As a happy eater of this luscious bread, it was fabulous!! Make it again, please.

    1. Can do! Say the word and I'll be happy to bring it back out. :)