It always makes me a little bit sad to read interviews where chefs explain that they can go days without eating a proper meal. I suppose it comes with the territory of working such strange hours and constantly tasting, testing and tweaking, but it does seem a shame to be surrounded by so much wonderful food and not have the opportunity to sit down and properly enjoy it.
In between school and university I spent six months abroad, working as a waitress beforehand to save money for my trip. Sixty-odd hour weeks and lots of late night shifts meant complete disruption of my body clock, compounded by the fact that the restaurant I worked in refused to serve their staff proper meals in between shifts (a practice completely counter-intuitive unless you want your waitresses wandering round ravenously eyeing up plates of food as they emerge from the kitchen).
Sometimes the chefs would take pity on us and one of the very best perks was when a batch of homemade ice cream was coming to an end. Mid-afternoon, once the lunch rush was over, they’d blend the ice cream with bananas and milk, turning it into the most incredibly rich milkshake which was then shared around in an assortment of mismatched vessels and gulped down as we hung round the kitchen and gossiped.
A second edible perk was a little more illicit, and perhaps even more enjoyable for being so. In between lunch and dinner service, local mums would come in for coffee so we always had a small selection of biscuits and cakes on the counter. Each week the treats would change bar a loaf of banana bread which never went off the menu, famed with customers for its moist richness, chocolaty chunks and golden brown banana-y goodness.
At three pounds a slice, I don’t imagine my manager would ever have dreamed of offering us waitresses any but sometimes, if no one else was around, it was possible to sneak just the smallest of slivers, carefully replacing the glass dome under which it sat and tucking it into your apron pocket. A quick trip to the cellar to ‘stock take’ and a few moments of sweet, energy-filled fuel would be yours, any evidence brushed away in a scattering of crumbs as you emerged upstairs to work the rest of a shift.
Nowadays, working normal office hours means I tend to know where my next meal is coming from. But I still have a weakness for banana bread. It’s one of those recipes that’s hard to get wrong – given the right ratio of banana to any kind of fat, sugar and sweetness, a few extras in the form of fruit, nuts or chocolate and you’re onto a pretty good thing.
The recipe below is a little more virtuous than the chocolate-packed loaf of my waitressing days, but no less delicious for it. With half a bottle of maple syrup left over from making this granola, I decided to use syrup as my sweetener, mixing it with olive oil instead of butter, a little yoghurt for moisture and a generous handful of walnuts and cocoa nibs for added crunch.
The result is a rich, moist, everyday sort of banana bread, the middle soft and light and the crust every so slightly caramelized and crunchy. It’s amazing eaten warm, thickly spread with peanut butter, or allowed to cool and served with a dollop of yoghurt and a spoon of fruit compote. I imagine it’s also delicious eaten in sneaky slivers out of an old apron pocket, although this particular loaf hasn’t made it any further than the top of my kitchen counter.
Maple Walnut Banana Bread with Crunchy Cocoa Nibs
(makes one loaf)
275g banana (about 3 medium bananas)
1 tbsp yoghurt
2 medium free range eggs
165ml maple syrup
40ml olive oil
2 tbsp milk
200g wholemeal flour
2 tsp baking powder
60g walnuts, roughly broken
25g cocoa nibs
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C. Oil a 21cm long loaf tin and line the bottom with baking parchment.
In a medium bowl, mash the banana. A few little lumps are fine and will add texture to the loaf. Add the yoghurt and mash again to combine.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, maple syrup and olive oil until thoroughly combined. Add the banana mixture and whisk again to incorporate.
Sift the flour and baking powder into the wet mixture and fold carefully to combine. Add the walnuts and two thirds of the cocoa nibs and fold again until just combined.
Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin, sprinkle with the remaining cocoa nibs and bake for 50 minutes to one hour – the loaf is done when golden and risen on top and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for five minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Serve in thick slices as it is, with a dollop of greek yoghurt or – my favourite – spread thickly with natural peanut butter.