Cake by Any Other Name?

On Banana Bread:

This afternoon, stuck at home without a car, and without anywhere enticing enough to walk to through cold and snow, I decided it was time to turn those black shriveled bananas into banana bread.

As always, I first had to spend some time pondering why we insist on calling tea breads or quick breads “bread,” when they are clearly cakes, leavened with baking soda and/or baking powder instead of yeast, and concocted with prodigious amounts of sugar, honey, or other sweeteners.

To use the term “bread” for the savory variations, such as biscuits, cornbread, dumplings, fritters, beer bread, soda bread, or pancakes, would not seem out of place, as they usually contain little or no sugar—note, however, that we do say “pancake” and not “panbread,” despite the usually low sugar content of pre-syrup pancakes! Unleavened johnny cakes (a.k.a. hoe cakes) also are usually not sweetened. So–why are they cakes?

Using the word “cake” for unsweet floury lumps is not too hard to explain, given the Old Norse word for cake, kaka, seemingly a global word for lumps of shit. So, by analogy, any lump is a cake (as with mud caked on one’s boots).

Surely, though, the sweet “breads” should properly be called cakes? Some sweet yeast-less flour doughs have their own names—scones, brownies, muffins (not to mention pastas). We don’t have to fret over whether they are “cakes” or “breads.” A “cookie” is already a cake–the word comes from the same Germanic (ultimately Indo-European) root word as “cake”—in Dutch, cake and cookie are koek and koekje. But why do we say make cranberry bread and banana bread? Ginger bread and apple bread? Pumpkin bread and zucchini bread?

The most satisfying solution I’ve come up with so far is that “tea breads” are sweet because, in England, both children and adults like sweet cakes (breads?) with their afternoon tea. Thus, breads for tea, whether leavened with yeast or baking soda, are sweetened for afternoon tea.

And then, too, perhaps quick breads were all originally unsweetened breads—a simple soda bread, and the same breads, even when later sweetened, retained their original designation.

ultra-ripe bananas

In any case, I had nine nice flabby black shriveling bananas, filled with soft, mushy pulp, just waiting to be made into banana bread. And I knew exactly how I wanted to make it, since I’d previously used all whole-wheat flour, less sugar, and more fiber, and ended up with a truly delicious loaf.  I also like to use a lot of spices in cooking and baking, especially when there’s the taste of flax seeds to counteract. Feel free to use your own favorite spice mix!

So, here’s the recipe for two loaves, one of which was rapidly and ravenously devoured by friends and family:

Moist Whole-Wheat Banana Bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two loaf pans, 8 ½ by 4 ½. Stir together in a large bowl: 2 ½ c whole-wheat flour, 2 t baking soda, 1 t baking powder, 1 t salt, ½ t ground cinnamon, 1 t ground ginger, and ½ t allspice.

In another bowl, beat together well: 1 c unsalted butter at room temperature and 1 c brown sugar (light or dark).

Then beat in well: 2 c mashed ultra-super-ripe bananas, 4 large eggs, and 2 t real vanilla extract.

Stir in well: ½ c freshly ground flax seeds, ½ c rolled oats (not instant), and 1 c chopped walnuts (pecans are also an excellent choice, and raisins would not be unwelcome).

ready to eat!

Fold in the flour mixture until just mixed. Divide evenly into the two pans. Bake until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pans and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, Cool in the pans atop wire racks for ten minutes, then carefully turn out the loaves onto the wire racks and cool, completely. Eat and enjoy! Even better buttered, if you wish.

About Karen F. Dimanche Davis

Associate Professor and Director, Cultural Studies, Emerita, Marygrove College

Posted on February 26, 2012, in Food & Cooking, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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