The (Near) Perfect Banana Cake

You have to let people see what you wrote. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring. — Tina Fey, Bossypants (2011)

I tend to agree with Tina Fey. What’s the point of carrying on if perfection has been and gone? If you don’t believe that the best is yet to come? But I make an exception for this cake – when it comes to banana cake, I’m stopping here and hoping that I don’t get bored.

The recipe originally comes from Mix & Bake by Belinda Jeffery, a book I would highly recommend. I’ve found Jeffery’s recipes to be pretty much fail proof. They’re unfussy and delicious, but also elegant. Her date scones are some of the best things ever to come out of my oven (credit goes to my sister for uncovering the recipe).

Unfortunately, this banana cake recipe has to be the exception that makes the rule. The first couple of times I made this cake, the finished product was sumptuous. However, getting there drove me to breaking point. Jeffery instructs you to combine mashed bananas, eggs and sugar. You then beat cubed butter into the mixture. This proved to be difficult with a stand mixture and utterly impossible by hand – the butter just wouldn’t cream. Though the finished cake was great, I was determined to find a better method. Next time I used wholly melted butter, which was much easier but the cake was too dense.

Finally, I gave up on Jeffery’s recipe and went back to the traditional way of baking cakes by creaming butter and sugar. And I have to say, this produced the best banana cake I’ve ever made (or even eaten!). The cake is moist but not squidgy (technical term, that) and the flavour is sweet and heady with banana. There list of ingredients is rather paired down – no secret ingredients here – but the finished product is much, much more than the sum of its parts.

(Near) Perfect Banana Cake (adapted from Mix & Bake by Belinda Jeffery)

125 g butter, cubed and softened

1 1/2 c sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

2 large bananas, mashed

100 ml full fat greek yogurt (or buttermilk)

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 c plain flour

3 tsp baking poder

1/2 tsp baking soda

pinch salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350’F. Butter a 20 cm cake tin with a thick layer of softened butter or line with baking paper (I like to line my pans with butter and then coat with sugar – see here for instructions).

2. Place the butter and sugar in a stand mixer. Beat until pale and creamy. Add the vanilla extract and beat until incorporated.

3. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until well combined. Add the bananas and yogurt and beat until combined.

4. Remove the bowl from the stand mixture (it’s easier to do this last part by hand). In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and a pinch of salt. Sift this over the butter mixture and stir gently with a wooden spoon until just combined.

5. Pour the mixture into the lined pan and bake until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean. Jeffery says that the cake takes 30-35 minutes to bake but I find it takes up to 45-50 minutes in my oven.

Notes

  • The top and sides of this cake brown quickly. Usually this results in a hard, dry crust but for some mysterious reason that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the crust is perfectly chewy, especially if you line the pan with sugar.
  • Don’t be put off by the large amount of baking powder in this recipe. The finished product does not have even a hint of that metallic taste sometimes found in scones and other things with lots of baking powder.

Rum Balls

So many of my memories are intertwined with food, such that they can’t be separated: my mum’s poppy seed cake and dinner parties, my dad’s fish and chips on the weekend, a chocolate cherry coconut tart the first time I stayed out at night drinking coffee with friends in high school (there was no actual coffee – not for another seven or so years – but that tart tasted intensely of freedom).

Rum balls also pop up in my childhood memories. I liked them the first time I tried them, a fact that slightly horrified my mother (and led me to believe that I had a lifetime of alcoholism in front of me).

But they’re not the kind of thing I’ve been able to find in Sydney for years. A couple of months ago my housemate baked a big batch of red velvet cakes. We couldn’t get through them fast enough so when they’d become too dry to eat, I looked for a recipe for rum balls. Despite being an Australian classic, recipes are hard to find: it seems they belong in bakeries in sleepy country towns where rock cakes, finger buns and peppermint slices are easy to come by. Nevertheless, I eventually found a recipe here.

It’s at this point you’ll think that I’ve gone completely mad (or had too much to drink?) because the recipe is clearly lacking in rum. As I went to make these the first time, I realised I had only brandy, no rum. I went with it, and I have to say, I’m glad I did. The brandy hints at the heady booziness of a well-soaked fruit cake, while moist chocolate takes centre stage.

Rum (or brandy) balls 

Cake mixture

1 1/2 c cake crumbs (see note below)

1/4 c icing sugar mixture, sifted

1/2 c almond meal

2 tbsp brandy

75 g chocolate, melted (I’ve used both milk and dark)

milk, as required

Icing

1/3 c icing sugar mixture, plus extra for dusting

2 tbsp butter

30 g chocolate, chopped

2 tsp brandy

milk or hot water, if needed

To make the cake mixture

1. In a bowl mix together cake crumbs, icing sugar and ground almonds. Pour in the brandy and stir through.

2. Add the melted chocolate to the cake mixture and stir through. I found that my mixture came together well at this point and was moist enough to hold together. If it is still looking dry, add milk, starting with 1 tbsp and going from there. The mixture should be wet, rather than moist, and should all hang together in one ball.

3. Roll heaped tbsp of mixture into balls and place on a baking tray or plate lined with baking paper. Put in the fridge to set for at least 2 hours.

To make the icing

4. Once the balls have been in the fridge for a couple of hours, start the icing. Melt the butter and chocolate together (I find the microwave is the easiest way to do this). When it is melted, stir to combine.

5. Add the icing sugar and then the brandy. Add just enough hot water or milk to make the icing the thickness of pure cream. Dip the balls into the icing one at a time and return to the same tray. Sift over some more icing sugar (or cocoa powder) and return to the fridge to set for a further two hours before eating.

  • Store in a airtight container in the fridge. Makes approximately two dozen.

Notes

  • I’ve made this cake using red velvet and butter cake crumbs. I imagine a chocolate butter cake would be fine too (amazing even!). Steer clear of anything too moist – a flourless chocolate cake or mud cake, for example.

Never enough cake

Given that my last post was about cupcakes, it seemed appropriate to follow up with a cupcake recipe. These aren’t quite Sparkle but they’re more than close enough. And they get brownie (!) points for being home made!

One of the things I love about food blogs is the way that great recipes and cookbooks get passed on and shared. But sometimes it means that you see the same recipe (see, eg, this tomato sauce) and the same food writers again and again. So sometimes, it’s really great to see something different. Some of you are probably staring at your computer screens in puzzlement right now because how could a cupcake recipe (and a plain old vanilla cupcake recipe at that) be considered in any way novel? Well, that’s totally true! But the source of the recipe is something a little bit different, so stay with me …

Earlier this year I went to New Zealand with my family and along the way we noticed a cookbook here and there called Ladies, A Plate – Traditional Home Baking by Alexa Johnson (available here). After fretting over whether I really needed another cookbook in my collection, my sister solved my dilemma and bought it for me. And I’m so glad she did!

Ladies, A Plate is utterly charming. It’s has the feel of a Country Women’s Association cookbook (imagine your favourite great aunt stepping into the kitchen with you and talking you through her favourite recipes) but with 21st century design. The book covers traditional NZ baking, going far beyond pavlova and ANZAC biscuits. Recipes include old-fashioned favourites such as health biscuits, Mrs Mackie’s moist and spicy fruit loaf, neenish tarts and, most importantly, cupcakes. Trendy these recipes are not, but they are understated, full of history and love and totally delicious.

Cupcakes (adapted from Ladies, A Plate by Alexa Johnson)

These cakes are the perfect vanilla butter cake in cupcake form. They’re moist without being heavy, fluffy and light but not spongey. The original recipe stated that you would get 24 cakes. I used slightly taller patty cases (but the kind that fit into a standard muffin tin) and got 11. If you use smaller patty cases, start checking for done-ness at 15 minutes.

For the cake:

115 g butter, softened

3/4 c caster sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 1/2 c plain flour

1 tsp baking power

1/2 c milk (I had some cream sitting around so I used half cream and half milk)

1 tsp vanilla essence

For the butter cream icing: 

1 c icing sugar mixture

50 g butter, softened

1 tbsp milk

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

food colouring, if desired

1. Preheat the oven to 350’F/180’C and put patty cases into a 12 hole muffin tin.

2. Cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until pale and fluffy.

3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture will appear curdled at first but keep going – the batter will come together.

4. Add the flour and baking powder to the batter in three lots, alternating with the milk. Sift the flour as you add it. Add the vanilla essence and beat until just combined.

5. Spoon the batter into the patty cases, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake in the preheated oven for 18-22 minutes, or until golden and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool.

6. While the cakes are cooling make the icing. Combine the sifted icing sugar mixture, butter, milk and vanilla in a bowl and beat until smooth. Add food colouring if desired and then smooth over the cakes in a thick layer. Enjoy!!

Notes:

  • I made this recipe by hand but I imagine it would work just find with a stand or hand mixer. Just be careful not to over mix it.

P.s. I promise the next recipe will be something savory. Xo

Layer Cake

Image

My boyfriend leaned over my shoulder just as I opened this post and begged me to make the cake for a weekend treat. Never one to say no to a complicated, way-too-involved baking project I readily agreed. But on Saturday morning, just as we headed out the door to the supermarket he decided he wanted a chocolate on chocolate layer cake, not a vanilla cake. I clicked through a few of my favourite blogs but came up blank: everything required half a dozen eggs or three pans. Where was my standard issue chocolate layer cake?! Not having hours to pour over and compare dozens of recipes like I usually do, I logged on to the Epicurious app and chose the first cake that looked like a safe bet.  It looked moist and chocolatey, didn’t require separating eggs and it has a whopping 1,468 (overwhelmingly positive!) reviews. I guess it goes to show that sometimes the best decisions are the ones made in an instant, because this cake lived up to all our expectations. Granted, it’s so big that we’ll be eating it around the clock for the next week. But still, that’s hardly a sacrifice given that it’s super delicious and it made for a very fun way to spend a Saturday.

Chocolate Chocolate Layer Cake (adapted from here)

Two 20 cm cake pans

For the cake:

90 g dark chocolate

1 1/2 c strong hot coffee

2 1/2 c plain flour

1 1/2 c cocoa powder

2 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp baking powder

big pinch salt (I used beautiful, flakey Maldon sea salt)

2 1/2 cups caster sugar

3 eggs, at room temperature

3/4 c vegetable oil

1 1/2 c buttermilk

1 tsp vanilla extract

For the ganache:

400 g dark chocolate (I used Cadbury Old Gold), roughly chopped

1 c thickened cream

1 heaped tablespoon honey or golden syrup

50 g butter

1. Preheat the oven to 300’F and place the racks on the middle shelf.

2. Prepare your pans. I like to line the bottom of the pans with baking paper. I then coat the sides with softened butter, drop a couple of table spoons of sugar or almond meal into the pans and shake it around until the sides are fully covered. This forms a barrier between the cake and the pan and makes the sides of the cake sweet and slightly crunchy (yum!). You can also line the bottom and sides of the pans with baking paper if you prefer.

3. Chop the chocolate for the cake up and pour the hot coffee over it. Leave the mixture to stand for a few minutes, or until the chocolate has melted. Stir until smooth.

4. In a large bowl sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking power and salt. Add the sugar and stir together.

5. In another bowl, beat the eggs until thickened slightly and pale. I did this by hand, which took about 6 minutes, but you could also use a stand mixer or a hand mixer.

6. Slowly until the oil, buttermilk, vanilla extract and coffee/chocolate mixture to the eggs. Mix gently until combined.

7. Add the sugar and flour mixture to the eggs and beat until well combined and smooth.

8. Divide the mixture between the two pans. They will be about 3/4 full but don’t worry – the mixture doesn’t rise too much.

9. Place into the oven and bake until a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake. For me this took 1 hour but start checking at 55 minutes and note that it may take up to 1 hour and 10 minutes.

10. Remove the cakes from the oven and leave to cool in the pans for 10 – 15 minutes before turning out to cool.

11. While the cakes are cooling, get started with the ganache. Pour the honey and cream into a medium sized saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. When the mixture has started to bubble, remove from the heat and pour in the chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Add the butter and stir until the butter has melted and is mixed evenly through the ganache. Leave the ganache to cool. I made this cake on a hot and humid day so I put it in the fridge to firm up.

12. Put the first cake on your serving plate and spread ganache over the top. Don’t be skimpy but don’t be greedy either. Pop the next cake on top and spread the top and sides with a thin layer of ganache. Put in the cake to cool slightly (about half an hour). This is called a crumb layer – it means that when you put the final layer of ganache on the cake it will look silky, smooth and crumb-free! Pull the cake out of the fridge and spread over a thick layer of ganache. Now you’re ready to go!

Notes

    I made this cake by hand, with an old-fashioned wooden spoon and mixing bowl. For some completely irrational reason I just can’t bring myself to use a mixer but in this case it would have been for the best – I ended up with slightly lumpy batter and a few flecks of flour in the finished cake. This did not at all detract from the finished cake but it looked a bit odd.
    The original recipe called for 3 cups of sugar. I cut this down to 2 1/2 cups and it would probably be fine with even a little bit less.
    The ganache recipe had 2 tbsp corn syrup and 2 tbsp sugar. Corn syrup is hard to get in Aus so I used honey. I’m sure golden syrup would be fine too. It was plenty sweet without the sugar and with the smaller amount of honey.
    My boyfriend requested sprinkles so that’s what we had! I cut out a piece of baking paper slightly smaller than the cake and gently placed it on the iced cake. I sprinkled the 100s and 1000s around the paper to form a border and then gently removed the paper.