One of my favorite workday lunches is ice-cold fruit salad, obtained from a sidewalk food truck near my soon-to-be-ex office. It’s quick, healthy, delicious, and during the summer, an embarrasingly cheap source of super-ripe, ready-peeled pineapple and mangoes. There is also a small dividend in going this route: much as you would get a complimentary roll with your soup, the fruit truck gives you a banana on the side.
I usually save the banana for my mid-morning energy slump the next day, but sometimes I’m so tied up or un-hungry that the bananas just sit under my computer monitor, getting progressively browner, until I’m faced with the choice of wastefully throwing them out or taking them home and figuring out what to do with them.
I had two such pathetically neglected bananas this week. Instead of taking my usual path of least resistance and freezing them for adding body and sweetness to a smoothie, I decided to incorporate them into a cake for Sunday baking. To kill three birds with one stone, I would ice this cake with a caramel frosting using that last straggling block of cream cheese and as much dulce de leche as I could reasonably cram in without losing structural integrity.
I set out with confidence, because as any Argentine kid will tell you, bananas and dulce de leche are a classic comfort-food combination, and the cake recipe I was starting with was Rose Levy Berenbaum’s, so it couldn’t possibly be anything less than great even after a couple of careful modifications.
Great, nothing; it was unbelievable. This is the most microscopically-crumbed, cloud-light, pillow-soft cake you have ever put in your mouth. It’s the 1000-threadcount goosedown duvet of banana cakes. His Lordship, who routinely mehs cake, practically skipped down to the kitchen for an unprecedented second serving, calling “More cake!” That’s how good this is.
The merest whiff of a critique is that it could have had just a teeny bit more you-lookin’-at-me? banana flavor to really stand up to the dulce de leche frosting, but I think that’s the fault of my slightly diminutive bananas, which measured a little less than the full cup that was called for. That’s easily fixed next time (and oh, is there ever going to be a next time) with larger or extra bananas.
So go ahead. Willfully ignore your bananas until they turn not merely brown but thoroughly black and squishy, and then transmute them into this cake. They will not only not reproach you, they will cry your praises as they ascend in majesty to assume their appointed place in the cakely pantheon.
Banana Buttermilk Cake with Dulce de Leche Cream Cheese Frosting
(Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Cordon Rose Banana Cake, The Cake Bible)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large, very ripe bananas (approximately 1 cup, mashed)
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
Grated zest of one lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla paste or extract
2 cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces (1 block) cream cheese, softened
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 teaspoon Maldon or other coarse sea salt, crushed fine between your fingers
1/2 cup dulce de leche, plus 2 additional tablespoons for drizzling
Leave all ingredients on the counter for at least 30 minutes to come to room temperature before starting.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line an 8 x 8 inch square pan with nonstick foil or parchment paper.
Process the sugar in a food processor until it achieves a superfine consistency, but don’t process so long that it turns to powdered sugar. Remove from the processor bowl and set aside.
Combine the bananas and buttermilk in the processor and process until smooth. Add the eggs, zest and vanilla paste, and pulse a couple of times to blend.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sugar and remaining dry ingredients and mix on low briefly to blend and aerate. Add the butter and half the banana mixture, stirring on low until the dry ingredients are just moistened, then increase to medium speed and beat for 90 additional seconds. Scrape down the sides and add the remaining banana mixture in two batches, beating for 20 more seconds after each addition.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes, then carefully lift out of the pan by the overhanging foil or parchment, and transfer to a rack to cool completely.
While the cake is cooling, prepare the frosting by beating the cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl and beat in the powdered sugar and salt, then scrape down again and beat in the 1/2 cup of dulce de leche. Cover and chill until the cake is ready to be frosted.
Spread the top and sides of the cooled cake thickly with the frosting. Slightly warm the additional dulce de leche in the microwave until pourable but not hot (around 10-15 seconds), and drizzle over the frosted cake to form a decorative pattern.
Don’t refrigerate it unless you really have to, since the cold will cause it to loose a little of its ethereal lightness.
Rose called for baking this in a 9-inch round or springform cake pan, but the only pans I still have available are the reusable but ultimately disposable Glad ones I bought as extras for the holiday baking, in 8×8 and 9×12 sizes. This required a longer bake time, and obviously resulted in a smaller but higher and more domed cake. I assume you’re not operating under my circumstantial handicap, so bake this in a 9-inch pan for 30-40 minutes if you can.
The original recipe used sour cream, which I replaced with buttermilk left over from the fresh blackberry pancakes that were my incentive for getting up at 8 on a Sunday to do more packing. I think the thinner texture of the buttermilk added even more lightness to the cake, but if you don’t have any, use the equivalent amount of sour cream or plain (but not nonfat, please) yogurt.
I don’t want the fact that not everyone has a kilo can of dulce de leche to use up to stop you from making this cake. Top it with whatever you like, from the sour cream ganache that Rose suggested to a simple dollop of whipped cream, but for the love of all that is delicious, make this cake. You will never lament an overripe banana again.