Banana cake was one of the very first things I ever attempted to bake. I still remember clearly the day. It was sometime in the mid-90s, when my hair was much longer and I still had
delusions dreams of being some kind of Melissa Etheridge rock musician. I was at our neighbor’s condo, watching our friend make banana cake without a recipe, simply mixing ingredients together until the consistency looked right to him. I was so amazed you’d think I was watching someone split an atom.
As much as I enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen, I never imagined baking would ever figure in my repertoire. I stayed clear of it because I thought it required a level of precision I just wasn’t capable of, and a few early disasters convinced me I was better off leaving it to the experts. Truth be told, I was more comfortable assisting with circumcision. (You’ll be glad to know that, unlike baking, there were no early disasters in my brief medical career.)
This is why I’m particularly pleased with a few of my baking experiments, like my Nutella chip cookies with homemade Nutella chips, and my crazy pizza bread. But this banana bread might be my absolute favorite so far. It’s a loaded banana bread, with chopped walnuts, lemon zest, and a walnut streusel that I consider the highlight of the recipe.
Plus, it’s made with browned butter.
I’m in love with browned butter. The smell is intoxicating, leaving my kitchen perfumed with the heady aroma of toffee that makes me almost want to lick the walls. It’s also the perfect option for someone like me who can never remember to leave butter to soften to room temperature, and who lacks the patience to wait after remembering. When I want to bake, I want to bake now.
This cake also gluten-free.
Yes, you heard me. It’s gluten-free. I’ve been avoiding gluten the past few weeks. Part of it has to do with the fact that I can no longer bake bread the way I used to; when I handle the dough, my hands develop itchy blisters and unsightly rashes. If merely touching it can do that to my skin, I wondered what it might be doing to my insides.
Venturing into the world of gluten-free baking scared me. It made me feel like I was back in the mid-90s, intimadated by all that necessary precision. But just like that friend who showed me that baking was as much about texture and consistency—things you can sense and measure without a calculator— as it was about numbers, Gluten-free Girl Shauna assuaged my fears, reassuring me that for the most part, all I needed to do was to replace the flour with an equal amount (by weight) of a gluten-free blend. And because I mostly bake by weight anyway, I was all set to tackle my first project.
Bananas that almost look like they can walk away on their own: check. Lemon for zesting: check.
Gluten-free flour mix (I took the easy way out for now and purchased a mix), walnuts for the streusel, and the fortitude to make a caramel sauce for topping because I can’t leave well enough alone, and I figured I’d go all the way for this: check, check, and chee-yeck.
(Thank you, Laurie of Simply Scratch, for the inspiration behind the banana cake streusel. It was truly the best thing about this cake.)
What can I say. This cake. This … this monster of a cake. It was so good, I couldn’t believe I was the one who made it. I made my husband take a bite, anxious to see if he could detect anything different. He promptly pronounced it fishy. But not that kind of fishy. His two words to me: “Holy mackerel.” Then he followed that with, “Do we have any ice cream to put on top?” This from a man who does not like sweets and would rather have a cheese platter for dessert instead of cake.
The cake was incredibly moist and the browned butter gave it a real depth of flavor. I tested it out on our son Tim, and on his friend David, who didn’t care if it was gluten-free or not; he just wanted an extra piece to take home. Covered with plastic wrap, the cake stays moist for days. And because it’s such a rich treat, it goes a long way because each serving size is smaller than a typical slice of banana bread.
If gluten doesn’t bother you, you can easily replace the flour with all-purpose flour or a blend of whole wheat and all-purpose flour. Just remember to replace it by weight. And if nuts bother you, you can leave them off or replace them with nut-free granola.
Then grab your caramel sauce, and do this.
Gluten-free Browned Butter Banana Streusel Cake
Makes one 9×13 pan
You can make this with regular flour instead of a gluten-free mix. The caramel is optional but I think it enhances the browned butter flavor of the cake and pulls the whole dish together nicely.
For the banana cake:
For the streusel:
For the caramel sauce:
Preheat oven to 350F. Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Lightly butter or spray a 9×13 baking dish.
In a small stainless steel saucepan or skillet, start melting the butter over medium heat. (The stainless steel pan makes it easy to gauge how brown the butter is, preventing you from scorching or burning it.)
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the flour, flax meal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to combine.
In a large bowl, measure out the brown sugar. Break up any lumps.
In another medium bowl, mash the bananas. Sprinkle with the cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Mix well. Add the lemon zest and mix well.
When the butter starts smelling like toffee, watch it closely. Swirl it around to help it cook evenly. When the butter has browned and the milk solids have turned dark brown but not black, take it off heat and pour into the bowl with the brown sugar. Mix with a whisk (the sugar will still look grainy) to combine and to cool. When the butter has cooled down a bit, add the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Add the sour cream or yogurt and combine well.
Pour the banana mixture into the bowl with the butter, again whisking to combine well. Then add the dry ingredients and gently stir with a spatula until just combined. Fold in the walnuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes.
While the batter is baking, prepare the streusel. Mix the flour, cinnamon, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Using a box grater, grate in the cold butter. Mix the butter and the flour until you have pea-sized crumbs. Stir in the nuts. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use, so the butter doesn’t melt.
After the cake has baked for 25 minutes, take the dish out and sprinkle the streusel evenly over the top. Return to the oven and continue baking for another 30 to 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare a simple caramel sauce by heating the sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously to keep it from burning. When it turns into a dark amber syrup, add the butter and stir vigorously to melt the butter and incorporate it into the sugar. Take the pan off heat and carefully stir in the heavy cream. When the sauce has come together, stir in the vanilla. (Tip: if you want to make a salted caramel sauce, add a teaspoon of kosher salt now.)
Cake is done when an inserted knife comes out with clean with just a few moist crumbs. Cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes before slicing.
Serve the cake with a drizzle of caramel sauce. If you’re feeling especially ornery, top with whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream.