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Friday, September 5, 2008

Down and Out in London and Paris

I'd love some advice. I'm taking a trip this coming week to London and Paris to write a piece about upscale business travel. It's been many many decades since I've been in either city. In the meantime I've been clipping newspaper and magazine articles but that's not the same as personal recommendations.

If anyone has a favorite restaurant, farmers' market, specialty market, park, art gallery, museum, public space.....etc. that you think I'd be crazy not to visit, please send me a note.

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

Ingredients
  • 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
Method
  • 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.