I haven’t eaten a banana in fourteen years. Bananas were one of the few fresh fruits I ate daily as a kid – in our house, pears and pineapple and mandarin oranges came out of cans, and otherwise we had apples, watermelon, the occasional berry, and the ubiquitous banana – but my juvenile banana glut isn’t why I don’t eat them now. I went off bananas when I was newly pregnant with Celeste: a banana was the last thing I ate before I was pitched headfirst into morning (and afternoon and evening) sickness. For about four months, twenty-four hours a day, I felt like I was on the deck of a rolling ship in high seas. I groaned on the couch with one foot firmly planted on the floor, like a drunk fighting off the whirling down tornadoes. Whatever I’d eaten the day before was unthinkable to ever eat again, until I was subsisting on a diet of half a plain bagel – if I even saw the other half it was too much for me – and See’s milk chocolate Bordeaux candies. Just the thought of the smell of a banana has made me run the other direction ever since. Weirdly, Celeste, too, can’t stand bananas.
Then early last year, while I was in the last phase of editing the manuscript for Cakewalk, I read a New York Times article that said the most popular recipe on the site allrecipes.com was one for banana bread. Just about then I was ruthlessly cutting whole chapters and many beloved recipes from my way-too-bloated manuscript, and one of the recipes I most regretted losing was for Nell Cliff’s bananas roasted in rum and brown sugar.
Nell was the mother of my college boyfriend, to this day one of the great influences of my life and the person who taught me more about baking and cooking and than anyone else ever has. She still gets her due – I guess I should really say her just desserts — in Cakewalk, but with only one of the many exemplary recipes she passed on to me. Seeing her roasted bananas on the cutting room floor made me wonder if maybe it was time to try bananas again . . .
Not, however, raw: that is still beyond my capabilities. But I looked up the popular banana bread recipe at allrecipes.com, and it looked like something I might actually be able to stomach, if I doctored it a bit with some flavors I knew I could manage. One of those flavors is chocolate, about which I tend to think in terms of Mark Twain’s statement about whiskey: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough.”
Too much chocolate is almost enough, if you ask me. So I added chunks of chopped milk chocolate to my banana bread, as well as powdered espresso and toasted walnuts. I brought the fragrant maiden loaf on a canoe trip with stalwart family friends, and when I unveiled it on a gravelly beach during our picnic lunch, after one bite Farhad, who in our circle is the High Priest of the Church of Wretched Excess, started shaking his head and laughing. It was that good.
It’s banana bread as an extreme sport. Unlike most recipes, this one calls for a lot of banana, so it’s got that unmistakable fragrance and flavor, but elevated to another level, which, given my banana problems, is perfectly fine with me. It’s kind of like banana bread candy. You can’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re eating something vaguely healthy. So here’s that recipe, my rendition of Chocolate Chunk-Espresso Banana Bread.
But back to Nell’s roasted bananas, which deserve their own moment of glory. They’re incredibly easy to make and perfect for a last-minute dinner party dessert that you can put together while everyone is lingering over their glasses of wine. Nell made them that way, and because of my naïvete – not just in the kitchen but in polite society — I once put my foot in my mouth when the roasted bananas were presented at the conclusion of an annual party with old family friends. “Oh good, you’ve made the roasted bananas again,” I brayed as we all oohed and ahhed over our plates of sizzling bananas in their pools of rummy sauce. “When you made these at last year’s party, Nell, everyone loved them!”
Nell, the consummate gracious hostess and ever indulgent of my flaws, flinched almost imperceptibly, and her daughter Molly shrewdly steered the conversation toward the deliciousness of our dessert. I didn’t know that a good hostess does her best not to serve the same dish to the same company a second time, nor did I realize that a good guest would have avoided embarrassing her hostess by mentioning such a repeat performance. Now I know better.
Nell’s recipe evolved from one of the cookbooks by Victor Bergeron, the Trader Vic of Trader Vic’s famous San Francisco restaurant, where the theme was Polynesian Tiki Room, the food was great, and the cocktails were strong – that’s where the Mai Tai was invented. Somehow I managed to never write down Nell’s recipe, and in my ramblings through used bookstores over the years I’ve never found the right Trader Vic’s cookbook with the original recipe, but here’s a version of Roasted Rum Bananas that’s pretty close, and I hope it makes up for my roasted banana bad of years gone by.