Recently, I purchased a Kindle and decided to reread all of my favorite books from my teenage years. But the truth is, I didn't read great literature when I was a teenager. I read a lot of the books that had big, flashy displays in the young adult section of my local Barnes & Noble, series like the Princess Diaries and Gossip Girl. I was curious to see how these books would hold up as an adult (though I certainly wasn't expecting anything groundbreaking).
I started with the Sisterhood of the Traveling pants series. My best friend in high school and I devoured these books. The series begins with four high school girls, each with their own distinct personality and subsequent crazy adventures, and follows them through four summers as they mature and grow. As we read and reread the books together, we saw a little bit of ourselves in each of the characters. My friend Katherine resonated with the character Lena and her inability to go after what she wants. I was fascinated by Bridget's impulsiveness and Carmen's hot-headedness, two traits I didn't have myself but often wished I did to make my teenage suburban life more interesting.
Reading the books, I had a feeling that I couldn't quite place. The characters and plot lines were as familiar to me as some of my childhood memories, despite the fact that ten years have passed since when I picked up the first book in 2003. It was like going back to a childhood place where nothing's really changed. Well, except for one thing — me. As I read the books, I realized that although everything was still the same, I was looking at them through a lens made from my own growth and subsequent experiences. And what a difference that made! For instance, in my teenage years, I had absolutely adored Lena's story when I was young, living vicariously through her allegedly beautiful appearance and her dramatic misadventures with a handsome Greek boy. But now I grew impatient with her one-dimensional personality and her lack of agency and self-confidence. In the past, I had flipped through Tibby's story impatiently. But now, as I read the books, I realized how much her character's experiences must have resonated with Katherine, whose father had died from lung cancer when we were younger.
My new perspectives towards the books' various characters and plot lines made me realize how much time had actually past since their inception, and how much I had changed and grown too. It's a funny thing, growing up. You don't really notice that you're doing it until you stop and look back towards the past. For a long time, I thought the only way to do this was to visit the place you once called home, but it's only now I realize that there are other ways to do this too — through books, music, and even recipes.
Take this banana bundt cake, for instance:
Banana cake has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In high school, I always loved the banana bread that my mom made. One of my favorite memories from back then is the times I would come back home from a long soccer or track practice and be delighted to find that she'd made banana bread earlier that day. I'd grab multiple slices before my mom could scold me for ruining my appetite for dinner and head upstairs to curl up in bed (still in my soccer outfit, mud and all) with a book from the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series to read and eat at my own leisure.
I've tried many banana bread recipes, as well as other variations like these chocolate frosted banana cupcakes or this banana chocolate Pocky cake. However, this banana bundt cake, the latest iteration, has been my favorite variation:
This recipe, however, manages to knock the ball out of the park. Placing the batter in a bundt pan allowed the banana bread batter to rise and bake properly like a cake. A healthy portion of sour cream in the batter also helped the cake retain the density and moisture that I admired so much in banana bread. And when topped with homemade dulce de leche caramel and flaky Jacobsen vanilla sea salt? Absolutely perfect:
Despite the new additions of sour cream, dulce de leche, and sea salt, there's still something very familiar about this banana bundt cake. I can't quite describe it, but I know that it's similar to the one that I had when rereading the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Eating it took me back to the past, to all those times I devoured it in packed lunch boxes and after soccer games. But eating it also reminded me of the present, with its new, trendy flavors. Again, I felt the merging of my past and present selves. And maybe that's reading too much into a cake recipe, but there we have it.
Some baker's notes:
- Dulce de leche caramel is one of those ingredients that is crazy expensive to buy, and stupidly easy to make at home. I've included a recipe for how you can make dulce de leche in your oven, but the wonderfully talented Naomi of Bakers Royale provides an even more comprehensive guide that instructs you to also make dulce de leche in your microwave and in a pot. Turning sweetened condensed milk into dulce de leche requires you to extract the water from the milk, leaving behind the fat and sugar to caramelize. As the recipe instructs, you simply leave it in the oven at high heat to bake, but it does take some time. To save time, you can make it ahead for up to 3 weeks, provided you store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Reheat by placing in a pot of boiling water for a minute or so. But if all of this sounds like a bother, you can just shell out and buy it at the store.
- You have to use ripe bananas for this cake recipe. Buy the ripest bananas that you can find and then let them go super brown and spotty before even using them in the recipe. In fact, go all out — ripen to the point of blackness. The riper they are, the more sugar they have, and the better your cake. It will almost taste like caramel.
- Didn't plan ahead? No worries. Take your bananas and seal them in a brown paper bag. The banana skins will release a gas (which the bag will then trap) that will enable them to ripen faster. Let sit for at least 2 or 3 days and voila! Perfectly ripened bananas.
- 14 ounces (1 can) sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tablespoon flaky sea salt (I used Jacobsen Vanilla Sea Salt, but have used Maldon in the past)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 3/4 cups very ripe bananas (see baker's notes — I used about 4 medium bananas)
- 1 cup sour cream
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 425 (F).
- Use a rubber spatula to transfer the contents of 1 can (14 ounces) of sweetened condensed milk to a medium, ovenproof glass bowl (I used a Pyrex bowl). Cover tightly with aluminum foil, before placing the covered dish in a larger roasting or casserole pan. Bring a pot of water to a boil and carefully pour the water into the roasting pan until it reaches three-quarters up the covered dish to create water bath. Carefully transfer the roasting pan into the oven and bake for 60 to 90 minutes, checking the roasting pan's water level every 30 minutes and adding more water if necessary.
- When the sweetened condensed milk has turned into dulce de leche, it will take on a tannish brown color. Remove from the oven and the water bath and place on a wire rack. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon flaky salt over the dulce de leche's surface and whisk until smooth. Let cool completely before storing.
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Prepare a 10-inch bunt pan by generously spraying with cooking spray, and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 3 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter. Beat on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add 2 cups granulated sugar and continue beating, turning the mixer speed to medium-high. Continue beating for at least 5 minutes, until the mixture is pale and fluffy.
- Once the mixture is pale and fluffy, reduce the mixer speed to its lowest setting. Beat in 2 large eggs, one at a time, only adding the next egg until the egg before it has been fully incorporated. Once the eggs have been incorporated, add 1 tablespoon vanilla extract and 1 3/4 cups ripe bananas and continue mixing until just incorporated. Finally, add half the dry ingredients (from the 1st step) until just combined, before adding 1 cup sour cream until just combined, and then the remaining half of the dry ingredients. It's important to mix until just combined — DO NOT OVERMIX, or your cake will be dense and tough and I will cry. It's even better to stop the mixer before the last addition of the dry ingredients is fully incorporated and to continue mixing by hand — 1 or 2 flour streaks left in the batter is totally okay.
- Once the batter is finished mixing, transfer the batter into the prepared bundt pan. Use a rubber spatula to smooth out the top and give the pan a good whack on a hard surface a few times to get rid of any air bubbles. Bake in the preheated oven for 65 to 75 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes, before unmolding onto the rack to cool completely. This cake is delicious warm, but its flavors develop even more intensely overnight.
- When ready to serve, drizzle with dulce de leche and flaky sea salt.