Friday, September 5, 2008

Happy Birthday, Claire, This Cake's for You, a Banana Chocolate Chip Walnut Cake

Years ago when I was living in Rhode Island, I was introduced to the idea of handmade gifts by friends Hank and Risa. Their gifts were never store-bought. For my birthday one year Risa made a knitted palm tree sculpture to remind me of the California I had left behind and Hank carved an elegantly simple kitchen spoon out of curly maple. Decades later I'm reminded of them and their generosity every time I see their gifts.

I don't knit, nor am I a wood-worker, I'm a cook, so my gifts are far less permanent, but I still think that a handmade gift is more personal and evocative, albeit in my case, fleeting. When Michelle's parents in New Jersey have a birthday or anniversary or I want to connect with my friend-in-food Valerie in New York, I'll make a dessert and send it Express Mail. Double-wrapped in Ziploc bags and cushioned to protect against the transit, the gifts always arrive as a happy surprise. (Only once did a food-gift not survive the vagaries of the Postal Service. When a package of homemade pickles reached Valerie's apartment, the doorman called her to say that a very drippy parcel was waiting for her downstairs.)

For our cousin Claire, we wish we were in San Francisco today to celebrate her birthday. I had wanted to send her a Banana Chocolate Chip Walnut Cake, a dessert that my wife, Michelle, calls my "signature dish." Unfortunately I was laid low by a cold all week and didn't get the cake in the mail. Luckily her dad Ron is a chef-extraordinaire and hopefully he'll use the recipe to make Claire the cake so she and Marii, her mom, can enjoy our gift nonetheless.

Claire understands intuitively the power of a homemade gift. When we visited San Francisco in July, we stayed with them. I happily joined Ron and Michelle in cooking a dinner of farmers' market produce. In appreciation, Claire gave me 2 drawings, a whimsical rabbit and a colorful collage. Like her grandmother, Joanie, and Michelle's dad, Warren, she's a talented artist. I cherish those drawings because what she gave me was a gift of herself and that's a treasure.

Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Yield 8 to 10 servings

Time 90 minutes

  • 4 ripe bananas
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup half and half
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 1/2 cup raw walnuts
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and paint the inside of a 9 x 3 round cake pan, then put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. (The frozen butter prevents the batter from sticking to the pan.) On a cookie sheet bake the walnuts in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so; let cool, roughly chop, and set aside.
  • 2. In a bowl mash the bananas with a fork, add the baking soda and vanilla. Stir well and set aside. In a mixer use the whisk to cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add the eggs, mashed bananas, half and half and whisk until blended. Mix in the flour half a cup at a time, being careful not to over-beat. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to blend in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan; it will only fill the pan half-way.
  • 3. Bake the cake in a 350 oven for 60-70 minutes, turning the pan every 20 minutes so the cake cooks evenly. Test to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer. If the top is browning too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. When the skewer comes out clean, take the cake out of the oven and place it on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan, putting it back on the wire rack to finish cooling.
  • 4. Just before serving dust the top with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream.

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