My mother's father (you can call him Pop for short) is, by far, one of my favorite people in the entire world. Not because he does particularly grandfatherly things (and how could he spread himself so thin with 8 children, 18 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren?) but because of the little things. Like, say, his voice-it's big enough to command the room at Christmastime when we're mercilessly flinging balls of tightly wadded wrapping paper at each other. But that same voice can be heard in the kitchen, Mack the Knife floating through the smoky haze above a pan of fried onions. He acknowledges your presence not with a simple "hello," but with a booming "How ya doin', baby!?" I love it, but from what my mother tells me, she hates it*. I'm not quite sure why, what could be better than your Pop giving you the same trusty greeting every time you walk in the door? It's comforting.
Pop's first wife, Pauline, passed away in 1981-four years before I was born. It's hard to think about somebody you don't know, and to be completely honest, nobody ever really talks about her, so I try my best to pick Pop's brain when I can. Once when I was little, I found a leather keychain in my mother's jewelry box that had "TIG" stamped onto the front in vertical red lettering with tiny, rainbow colored decorations around the edges. After interrogating my mother for a cruel eight seconds, I found out that Pop called Pauline "Tig" as in "Tiger." Now if you put your mind in the gutter, you could really run with this, but I learned the less-exotic truth during a conversation with Pop this past weekend. As it turns out, Pauline had a friend they all called Tiger and Pop thought it was funny so he started calling his new bride the same-and she answered to it, so I assume she didn't mind. I know very little about her, except that she wasn't much of a cook.** I suppose when you're cooking for 10, you don't have much time to fuss over seasonings and your family shouldn't expect a lot of fanfare in lunchboxes or otherwise. As Mom tells me: She didn't even put salt on things, if it was canned green beans, she'd just dump the can into a pot and heat it up. Burgers didn't get any spices, just plain ground beef, and everything was so dry! Oh dear. That's terribly concerning.
But I like to think that Pauline was a practical woman, and that with an ever-increasing brood she'd learn to make due with what she had on hand. And any sort of sensible mother always has bananas on hand. They're cheap, efficient, babies adore them (I'd imagine due to their smooshability against toothless gums) and you can still use them when they're black and mottled. I know I know, I've been on a bit of a banana kick lately. It really didn't start with Emily's banana pudding, that only added to the addiction. I think it started with this banana bread, a sort that I think Pauline would make since it's incredibly easy and the ingredients are the sort of thing you'd have on hand. I fueled the tropical fire with a scoop of banana custard just last night and I fully intend to pulverize my current brown and yellow bunch into a respectable loaf sometime this week (maybe with walnuts? or coconut?).
And so here it is, a low bow to the humble banana. I think Tig would like it.
Whole Wheat Banana Cake & Sweet Cinnamon Frosting
Inspired by Dorie Greenspan
2 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or cinnamon or allspice, whatever you have)
1 1/2 (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, soft
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 very ripe bananas, smashed
1/2 cup milk (or yogurt, or sour cream, or buttermilk)
1 cup mix-ins (walnuts, cranberries, coconut, whatever you like)
Center a rack in the oven and let it warm up to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 inch cake pans and line with parchment paper, then dust with flour.
Whisk the flour, baking soda, salt and nutmeg (or whatever it is) together and set aside.
With your trusty stand mixer (or with a hand mixer and a bit of muscle) beat the butter until it is light and creamy. Add the sugars and mix at medium speed for a few minutes, then mix in the eggs one at a time, beating a full minute after each addition. Add the vanilla and mashed bananas, the batter will probably take on an unsightly, lumpy sort of appearance, but keep at it, it will come together.
Alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk (or sour cream or whatever you are using) until it is just combined, then stir in your mix-in of choice. Divide the batter evenly into the pans and bake for 45 minutes or so, until they are golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Let them nap for 10 minutes or so before turning them out to cool to room temperature.
The sweet cinnamon frosting I made on a whim, and totally by feel, so I don't have an exact recipe for it. If you are the type that likes precise measurements and you're anxiously waiting with your hand on your kitchen scale, you may want to serve this cake with some lightly sweetened whipped cream or as a single layer, dusted with powdered sugar.
For the daring: Beat 1 stick of unsalted butter and 8 ounces of cream cheese until smooth and combined. Add powdered sugar about a cup at a time, beating at high speed for at least 3 minutes after each addition. I'd say by the time it looked and tasted right (it shouldn't be gritty with sugar), I was about 5 cups in. Add a teaspoon of cinnamon and frost the cake.
*After reading this post, Mom informed me that she only hated it when it was early and she was grouchy. Just to clarify.
**I did also learn that Pauline was child #13 out of 14, and three of her sisters gave up their Nun status to get married. 'atta girls!