Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Heaven in a dark brown skin

Look, I don't have a problem with, say, saffron-scented cotton candy or a $22 foie gras PB&J sandwich. But so much of what this historical cooking project has been about is a (re)discovery of simple pleasures. Here's one that I recommend everyone should try this fall.

Now, it's a complicated recipe, so you might want to get out a pencil. (And yes, there will be a pop quiz.)


Take a few greenish bananas, one for every pal you're planning to feed. Put them in an ovenproof dish (the bananas, duh).

Put the dish in a hot oven. (How hot? Oh I dunno, let's say about 400 degrees. Or 425. Whatever, just "hot.")

Now sit right down and wait. (Somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes seems about right.) When the skins are the color of dark brown M & Ms (or you simply can't wait any longer, whichever comes first), proceed to the next step.

Put on a pair of oven mitts.

Remove dish from oven.

With the tip of a sharp knife, slice a sliver down the length of the bananas' soft skins. The flesh will be creamy-yellow, steamy, fragrant, and still firm enough to plop out in one long banana fruit.

Arrange on a plate, top with ice cream, coconut flakes, chocolate chips/shavings/sauce, butter, cream (whipped, clotted, whatever), nuts, maple syrup, cookie crumbs, etc. (Or nothing at all).

And now ... mangia!

So there you have it. Baked bananas!

Now, class, as promised. Please choose the correct answer:

Baked bananas is one of the world's best desserts because...
a.) Everyone gets their very own special portion, like an individual soufflé (and who isn't a sucker for those?)
b.) A monkey could (and definitely would) make it, if monkeys discovered the secret to man's fire
c.) It's sure to be a novel experience for even the most fiendish devotee
d.) And yet it feels so familiar that it fills even the most blasé among us with child-like delight

(Pencils down, please.)

Ok, you got me. That was a trick question ... because it's ALL OF THE ABOVE.

The recipe for Baked Bananas "Porto Rican Fashion" (included in American Food Writing) is from a 1911 cookbook called Good Things to Eat, written by a fellow named Rufus Estes. Born a slave in Tennessee, he went on to become a cook on Pullman cars and a chef for a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. (As you may recall, Alice B. Toklas had all kinds of complaints about airplane food in the 1930s; she claimed it was a poor relation to railroad dining. If this recipe is any indication, I'm inclined to believe it.)

Mr. Estes recommended baking the bananas 'til the skins burst. I just couldn't hold off that long, though next time I'll try because it sounds like fun. He sent them to the table still in their skins, wrapped in a folded napkin to hold in their heat, and he topped them with just butter, but plenty of it. (I tried some butter on mine and it was fantastic, but this isn't 1911 and I'm not riding behind a steam engine, so why not break out the cold n' creamy stuff?)

And oh! it gets better. Baked bananas can get dressed up all fancy-like for dinner parties, but they've also got an outdoorsy streak in 'em (not unlike myself, incidentally.) Mr. Estes wrote that you can simply bury the bananas in the ash of a hot fire. (Omg, can you imagine what a layer of hot n' oozy banana would do for a s'more? ... S'MORANAS!)


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