Sunday, October 26, 2008

Banana Nirvana Muffins

There is something about learning all these new patisserie techniques which often makes me yearn for simple things. Mind you, I love broadening my repertoire, but after several weeks of mad meringue whisking, extensive use of piping bags, precarious slicing of cake layers, burning my fingers with sugar syrups, and then the stress of transporting such fragile creations around the metro & TGV, I am so happy to make something simple. In my opinion, banana muffins are all of that…simple, tasty, portable and stockable. Throw a couple in your handbag, or store them for a few months in the freezer, they are always delicious and really go the distance for just a small investment of time and ingredients.

It has been a particularly tiring week, one in which I have run around too much, not eaten nor slept properly nor really looked after myself. As I stumbled into my kitchen this Sunday morning in search of caffeinated enlightenment before dealing with the brioche dough, I was confronted by three freckled and slightly geriatric bananas - which I probably should have eaten for breakfast throughout the past week. Instead, they are still lying there in the fruit bowl looking pathetic, as if to say, “Hey, what gives?! Aren’t we good enough for you now, miss hoity-toity pastry princess??!!”

So while the brioche was rising, I decide to whip up my favorite banana nut muffins. It is always a treat and one recipe that never fails me. I love it because it humbly re-purposes these has-been bananas into a really comforting treat and requires no other special ingredients from the pantry. With my own subtle blend of spices and the light crunch of toasted pecans, the recipe transforms itself into a real nirvana comfort food, especially when served warm from the oven with a hot cup of coffee or tea. Ahh, it all just makes me want to curl up on a daybed in the sun with a good book!

So I started this batch by grinding up fresh cardamom pods. Normally I have used the pre-ground cardamom I buy in jars at the supermarket. But last night while looking for my dough hook attachment in the basement, I also found the spice grinder that I’d bought in Australia and basically forgotten about. So I put this newly re-discovered gadget to use and pulverized a handful of cardamom pods which I’d bought in Zanzibar a couple years ago. I wasn’t entirely sure if they’d still have any flavor left after 2 years, but my uncertainty subsided when I lifted the lid of the grinder. Wow…what a fragrance! My nose was tickled by an aromatic, sweet and slightly piney fragrance…much stronger than I ever smelt coming out of the McCormick jar!

Then I mashed the bananas into a fine pulp, just placing the peeled pieces on a dinner plate and using the back of a fork to create the pulp. I left them on the plate for a few minutes to liquefy further while I measured the remaining ingredients. Three bananas means I can triple the recipe (!!!), which means I will have plenty to share as well as stock the freezer.

I measured out my flour and baking soda in a bowl and stirred these with a whisk to combine and remove any lumps. Then I beat the butter and sugar with the spices until light and fluffy, added my eggs and beat until smooth. Then in multiple alternating rounds, I folded in the flour mix, the banana pulp and the milk – about 2 rounds for each ingredient and starting & ending with the flour. Finally, I fold in the chopped pecans then filled the paper-lined muffin pans and baked in a hot oven, about 190 degrees C.

Today since I had some praline powder in my pantry, I topped each muffin before baking with a sprinkling of the powder. This gave them a beautiful, slightly caramelized touch once they were baked. Gorgeous!

So if, like me, you find yourself with even 1 has-been banana, don't throw it away....try making these muffins. If it is two or three bananas, then just double or triple the remaining ingredients so that you don’t end up with a mixture that is too stodgy and doesn’t bake well. You can eat the muffins all on the day, share with friends, or place them in freezer bags and freeze for use within 3 months. They are a perfect treat for a hike or beach outing, or for breakfast on the go when you are rushing to catch EasyJet or TGV.

And if you don’t have a muffin pan, don't stress...just bake all the batter in a well buttered and floured loaf pan. It works just as well and will freeze beautifully too.

So..happy Sunday and remember to love your leftover bananas!

Lisa’s Banana Nirvana Muffins with Pecan Praline & Mixed Spice
(1 recipe yields about 12 average muffins)

115g unsalted butter (about 1/2 cup)
½ cup sugar (I used part brown sugar and part granulated sugar)
2 teaspoons ground spice mix (about 1 tsp cardamom, 1/2 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg)
2 eggs
1 banana, slightly freckled to nearly black, mashed to a fine pulp
1 ¼ cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup buttermilk or plain milk, at room temperature
Praline topping or additional chopped pecans (optional garnish...they taste good without it too)

Prepare and mix as noted in my histoire above. Bake in paper-lined muffin pan, filling cups about 2/3 full, until the muffins look golden and are springy to the touch. Remove from pan immediately after they are taken from oven and cool on a wire rack to avoid soggy bottoms. If freezing for later use, allow muffins to cool thoroughly then place 3-4 in zippered freezer bags and store in freezer up to three months. Thaw muffins ideally in a lightly warm oven, to allow them to awaken their flavors and textures and to avoid sogginess from any ice crystals which may have formed in the bag during freezing.

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