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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

MacGyver Banana Breakfast Bars

It all started with the desire to bake. Someone once told me you are either a baker or a cook, but no one is both. This moment somehow marks the end of my innocence in the kitchen, like the moment the older you forever becomes separated from the grade schooler who knew confidently that she was good at everything. But the question perplexed me. I loved both tasks. I love cooking because there is more room for off the cuff experimentation and taste combinations without worrying about the precise chemistry of baking. But, by the same token, I love baking in part for its precise chemistry. It gives baking a ritualistic aspect that I dearly love. There is something innately homey about the act of baking, whether the rhythmic kneading of yeast breads, the smell of baking cookies, or the blending of cake batter.

Without an oven in our Ghana kitchen I was going a little stir crazy. So one day, while marching down the dusty road, I announced to my husband that I was going to try to bake banana bread. He looked at me skeptically, “You know, we still don’t have an oven right?” So I calmly outlined my plan to bake the banana bread in our rice cooker. Desperation is the mother of invention, and I was primed to become a little MacGyver in the kitchen. T, ever the pragmatist, said, “It’ll never work.” Now, I love a challenge, so I considered the gauntlet thrown. I jauntily announced, “Well, good thing for you that bananas are so cheap here, because then I can afford to make a few mistakes.”

You might ask yourself: Well, who needs to cook something in a rice cooker? And you might think it would just be little old foodie me, out in West Africa without an oven. But it turns out there is an entire corps of people who routinely have to eat using only a rice cooker. I discovered this while recounting my “rice cooker banana bread” story to some friends over dinner. A number of people I knew here work for O.P.E., the “Overseas Processing Entity” which is a large group of people, based near the origin points of refugee populations, who interview the refugees who are seeking to emigrate to the United States. These people prepare case files on all the refugees that are later reviewed by U.S. immigration officials. To do their jobs, O.P.E. employees often travel for weeks at a time to different field sites around West Africa. When they go, they travel with their rice cookers. Preparing refugee portfolios in the field can be long and uncertain hours, so they often find themselves returning to their lodging late at night when restaurants are closed. And folks get tired of eating out day after day.

Over the years I have tried a fair number of banana bread recipes, but none that I love so well as my mother’s buttermilk banana bread, which I modified by adding some wheat and flax to give it a more hearty taste while maintaining a delicate crumb. The problem was that her recipe uses both baking powder and baking soda. When I went to our

In case you were wondering, after my first successful rice cooker banana bread episode, I got adventurous. When I was finally able to find baking soda at the grocery store, I went ahead and tried to make my mother’s recipe in the rice cooker. I knew that the key to getting it to cook through was that it can’t rise very high or it will cook unevenly, so I cut her recipe in half. Even so, I found the top and center a bit soggy. I wound up having to “flip” the bread as though it were a pancake. The result was more like scrambled bread. It wasn’t pretty, but the taste was great.
grocery store, that week I could only find baking powder, no baking soda. I took enough chemistry in my days to know that substituting between these two requires a somewhat delicate balancing act to account for acidity and whatnot, so I wasn’t eager to tinker that much with my mother’s recipe. I decided instead to search around for a reasonable sounding recipe that only used baking powder. The original recipe calls for heating for 30 minutes in a hot oven. I figured an unspecified “hot oven” was just vague enough that perhaps a rice cooker would do. With a little bit of tinkering on my part, it seemed like it would work.

While the final result did not remind me of my mother’s pleasantly fluffy delicious banana bread, it did remind me of breakfast bars. This was a pleasant surprise because those little wonders of convenience that I took for granted back in the U.S. sell for $8 a box around here. Best of all, the bread baked up perfectly fine in the rice cooker. I am providing the straight banana bread recipe as well as a variation for home made breakfast bars.


20 grams butter
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ tsp salt
1.25 cups all-purpose flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp cinnamon
¼ cup milk
1 tsp almond or vanilla extract
½ cup banana, mashed

Cream together the butter, sugar, and salt. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, and baking powder (but seriously folks, if you are pressed for time, you can definitely just plunk them both in there and mix well). Mix dry ingredients into butter and sugar. Combine milk and extract, add. Mix well. Add banana and mix to combine.

Grease and flour a 9 inch round or square baking dish. Pour dough into baking dish.

If you are working this one in a rice cooker, I was baking in a 10-cup rice cooker, with an approximately 8 inch bottom. I had to push the “cook” button down twice. If you are baking in a regular oven I would put this one through at 350 and begin checking for doneness around 25 minutes.

Breakfast bars variation

20 grams butter
½ cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
2 Tbsp wheat bran
1.5 tsp baking powder
1.5-2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
¼ cup milk
1 tsp almond or vanilla extract
½ cup banana, mashed

Follow the directions above for making the bread dough. Pour half of the dough into the baking dish and spread evenly across the bottom. Spread 1/3 cup of filling evenly across the dough, to within ¼ inch of the edges.

Filling. Select one of the following:
1/3 cup of dried prunes, blended
1/3 cup of figs, blended, or fig spread
1/3 cup of dried apricots, blended

Top with the remaining half of the dough. Again, spread to distribute evenly. Mix topping ingredients together and sprinkle evenly across the top of the dough, pressing slightly to stick the topping to the wet dough.


2 Tbsp oats
1.5 tsp ground flax seed
1 tsp turbinado sugar

Bake as directed above. Remove to a wire rack to cool. Cut into bars.

Nutritional Information. Basic recipe only, using wheat flour and bran substitutions. 12 servings: 94 calories, 1.7 grams fat, 1.0 grams fiber, 4 mg cholesterol, 112 mg sodium.


longshadows said...

way to go!
I've been thinking lately about this whole idea of "either cook or baker but not both." I always thought I was a "cook" but lately I've been feeling more "baker." Does it have to be just one? hmmm...

Laura said...

I too used to think one was either a cook or a baker (and I was definitely a cook). Then I had children and discovered that for me anyway (and I suspect you) the question isn't nearly that simple. Baking, at least in my family, is where we store our family history. Baking is what recalls us to our childhoods, and our love for our mother and grandmothers and actually even Dad is famous for his cinnamon rolls. The smells from baked goods in the oven actually bring back childhood occasions and memories for me, and I want my kids to have all that. And kids can help with baking more also--which means Alex and I (and soon Samantha)are building our own family memories out of flour and butter.

Never choose between the 2 and thanks for letting me rant. :) I'm glad you find ways to make your mom's banana bread no matter where in the world you are.

Erin said...

Longshadows and Laura: So it seems the "either a cook or a baker" thing has traveled far and wide. Frankly I felt like a tiny bit of my innocence was crushed when she told me that, and I have always rolled the idea around in my head without really accepting it.

I really have always loved doing both, and continue to feel I am pretty darn decent at both. Of course, the fruits of my talents from cooking are often healthier than those from baking. but what is baking without butter?

Laura, you said it beautifully: baking is where we store our family history. those recipes are like the genetic code through which we recreate our past memories.

That comment also got me thinking about how nearly everything I was drawn to do for my month of nostalgic food was sweet somehow. This post was actually originally intended to be part of the food nostalgia set, but then time got away from myself.

Laura said...

Baking is nothing without butter. And frequently sugar. I too notice the more I bake with my kids and for my kids the more sweet stuff we have around. I try to give a lot of it away at my husband's office and encourage moderate servings here at home. It's hard because while I really believe in everything we just said about baking and family history, I also want my kids to find family memories in healthier stuff.

Hopefully it will be easier when they are older. :) But right now, cookies rule. Then cupcakes. Then bread. :) :)

Deborah Dowd said...

What a creative way to overcome your lack of an oven! I have a rice cooker that is gathering dust- I guess its time to pull it out!

Y said...

MacGyver couldn't have done it better himself.. not even with an extra helping of masking tape! :-D

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