There is a poem by Robert Frost that we were introduced to as Standard VII students by the Goa Board of Education and I could be getting the class or age I was at completely wrong. Mending Walls, as I recall, was the title. The customary Q and A “discuss this poem” that came at the end was what we were conditioned to believe as the real learning. As long as we got the answers right, agreed on them and spewed the same thing at exam time there was no need to know more…to crave more ideas and writers and worlds to get lost in. That was what hobbies were for. You could do that in your free time at home, silly! As much as I – and certainly 99% of my class – was a product of this environment, I was still taught to dream; to believe.
Mr Frost wrote of a person meeting his neighbour along an imaginary boundary in the spring time. The two see each other and the writer asks his neigbour why they bother putting up a fence when there is no tangible reason for it. “Good fences make good neighbours,” his neighbour repeats back to him, as if out of habit. I thought about this line when I first heard it in class and I still think about it even today. In the most simplistic terms, the poem leads me to look right outside my door and wonder why (oh why!) more people are not smiling and waving at each other, walking through unlocked doors and sharing a cup of tea without reason except that shared cups of tea are the best damn thing. I know what you’re thinking. I understand your reasoning. I just don’t get it. Like a child in that classroom forced to learn in a particular way, I fight for the right to dream.
When I first moved to Washington, I was mostly confined (by choice) to a two-bedroom apartment. The hum of traffic outside were the sounds I heard along with the occasional door slam or bouncy ball played by adult missionaries next door (not a dirty thing, I promise). It was so quiet sometimes that I heard nothing. It left me with a lot of time to think but also to feel sad that I didn’t hear 85 different people knocking at the door. I missed my 1 billion country, hanging clothes out to dry and talking to P2, having our door wide open in Bombay doing the exact same things we do here, now. We had nothing to hide. If the building gossip wanted something to talk about while she visited (read spied on) the best neighbours right next door, we placed male friends around just so we could use them as our human “F you”. She got her 10 seconds of entertainment. Sometimes I feel like I could be her, except cooler. By that I mean, I wouldn’t call your uncle – I would just write about you in my blog.
Nobody leaves their doors open quite like they do back in the “third world”. I was prepared for this. I knew the likelihood of being friends with the houses around me was very low. Shoot at me. I don’t really care. I just wanted to prove this whole here theory about America not being neighbourly wrong. Indians love to feed you, Americans love food. Divide that by 10 and square it so it looks pretty and you have a new theory: I’m going to get to know you dammit. I made friends with a lady who lived upstairs at the apartment place. She was Indian so that was easy. We just happened to meet at the same bus stop and found out that not only did we live in the same area, she was a flight of stairs away. When we moved to this home we bought, I wondered if I could put my theory back in action. Suburbia was bound to be different. I kept and open mind because A) I can bake. There is no B)
Over the end-of-year festivities, I made shortbread. I handed it out to the houses, feeling SO AWKWARD and cold. I wanted to do this but I wished it was easier. I also almost fell down a short flight of stairs. Thanks boots. We’d been living here for 4 months at that point. There was only one person who took the shortbread without so much as a “thank you” or “who are you?” He seemed confused and I’m not sure why he would take food from strangers. Everybody else was lovely. I thought little of it.
Last week while I was planting flowers, our dog ran over to the neighbour mowing his lawn. I stopped what I was doing to go get him. Chevy has the habit of chasing squirrels and I wouldn’t hold it past him to bolt across the road. As I stood face to face with this gentle-faced man trying to get a shy dog to warm up to him, words came out of my mouth as if this was what I was dying to say all along. “Do you eat sweets or cakes? Because I love to bake!” (what stop yourself right now Edlyn…you are so strange…this is AMERICA!!) I’m not sure what he said back because I was listening to the parallel conversation running through my head. I do know that I somehow got him to share that he baked no-knead bread (what are you doing Edlyn do you know how amazing that would taste fresh out of the oven with butter) and he offered me a loaf when he baked it later that evening. I said yes. YES! a million times more in my head: To the bread, to this victory and to the fact that I was talking to a neighbour, exchanging all the prospective foods I could come up with without saying a word.
This banana bread is a product of that poem (and how it helps me defy boundaries), the community of neighbours that I grew up around (and how they taught me that it’s impossible to live as an island) and the fresh bread that found its way to our kitchen counter-top twice in the last week. I made him half a loaf of banana bread along with a single-serving chicken pot pie.. I’ve never had a better day baking than this.
Brown butter banana bread with macadamia nut streusel
I changed a few things in this recipe to suit my neighbour’s palate (and age). I lessened the sugar by sweetening it with dates and I reduced the size by separating the bread into two mini loaves rather than 1. I kept one for myself for tea and gave him the other one. It’s a great idea if you’re thinking about baking for a neighbour in your part of the world.
One more slightly unrelated thing: Saveur’s Blog Awards this year has nominated Dash and Bella (the original inspiration behind this recipe) in the Best Writing category – the best and my favourite category of them all, in my opinion. I read most of these blogs already and I’m always happy to discover new ones. If you want to vote for Phyllis Grant, Farmette, Orangette, Happyolks, The Yellow House or Yummy Books, follow this link. These links are also here if you just want to witness some brave women writing and creating recipes. Doing both is not as easy as it looks. They are great innernet neighbours to have.
Makes 2 mini loaves (5 inches X 3 inches) or one large loaf (9 inches X 5 inches)
For the streusel
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2/3 cup roasted and salted macadamia nuts, finely chopped (the original recipe called for roasted and salted peanuts)
For the cake
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 15 pitted dates (soaked in warm water for 10-15 minutes and drained) or 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 2 ripe bananas
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 tbsp orange juice, fresh or store-bought
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 mini bread loaf pans (5 inches X 3 inches) with butter and dust with light sprinkles of flour. Do this by sprinkling a bit of flour on the bottom of the pan and tapping the sides as you swirl the flour around it.
Mix the first 4 ingredients for the streusel in a small bowl and add in the chopped macadamia nuts at the end. Set aside.
Add 1/2 cup of butter to a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Once the butter has melted it will eventually start to sizzle. This is when you need to be watching the saucepan because the butter can go from sizzle to burnt quite easily. As soon as the sizzling lessens drastically and/or stops completely, you will notice a change in the butter’s colour. It will have turned a deep brown and developed a nuttier aroma. You will have also noticed milk solids deposited on the bottom. It’s free therapy, basically. As soon as this happens, take it off the heat and let it cool.
In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together the all-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt using you fingers.
Bring out the food processor and add bananas, soaked/drained dates, eggs, heavy whipping cream, orange juice, vanilla extract and finally – the browned butter – to it. On the low setting, process the ingredients for about 10 seconds. The mixture should be almost smooth, according to the original recipe. If the dates or bananas are still too chunky, pulse once or twice more until you get to the right consistency. Remember, it should be able to mix well with the flour.
Add the liquid ingredients from the food processor to the flour. Using a wooden spoon or a rubbed spatula, combine the ingredients carefully, taking care not to over-mix. I gave it no more than 10 big stirs. Make sure there are no hidden pockets of flour in the batter.
Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pans and place the pans on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the streusel on top of the batter in the loaf pan. Squeeze some of it inside the batter using your fingers. Take the baking sheet and place it in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Some of the batter will spill out but that’s really okay. It makes for great snackies while you’re waiting on the bread to cool. The bread is done when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. My oven took 40 minutes to bake the 2 loaves. (The original recipe says that it’s okay if the centre of the banana bread is slightly gooey and suggests that you toothpick/skewer check doneness about an inch away from the centre.)
Let it cool slightly for about 30 minutes before digging in.