Sweet memories of desert play days

Banana, spelt and malted milk cake
Banana, spelt and malted milk cake
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The first cake I recall eating was banana bread when, at the age of four, I met Susie and her mother. Susie’s Mexican-American family lived around the corner from us in a big white house overlooking the Zapalinamé mountains, whose greyish-blue foothills form a backdrop to the northern Mexican city of Saltillo.

Susie had black ringlets and mine were blonde and we both had a streak of the devil in us, according to the nuns at our convent.

Let out of school, we would grab a slice of this most American of bakes to eat for merenda before tearing off to meet other local kids.

We’d chase tumbleweed as it blew across the Chihuahuan desert and poke sticks into gopher burrows to rouse either rodent or the rattlesnake who was using its burrow as an escape from the fierce sun. Sometimes there was no gopher because the rattlesnake had eaten it. If our family housekeeper caught us doing this, we got a slap across the backs of our legs with her broom. This did not deter us.

Susie’s mum’s banana bread was loaf-like with a rugged, chewy crust, filled with large chunks of intensely-flavoured banana; I remember the fruit’s flesh was custard-like in its ripeness unlike the firm, immature bananas sold here.

My banana, spelt and malted milk cake has a softer, closer crumb and, instead of adding the bananas raw like she did, I’ve roasted them which is the best way of recreating the flavour of the bananas I remember eating as a kid.

Although I’ve substituted spelt flour, there’s nothing spooky about the resulting cake. The spelt contributes rich flavours, a caramelised crust, and that tender crumb. Ensuring the banana flesh is well distributed through the batter ensures you avoid the clagginess that can affect some banana cakes.

The marriage between bananas and malted milk powder (Horlicks) is a harmonious one. Its creamy, toasted earthiness tempers the sweetness of the cake whilst the milk powder content helps the crumb to brown and develop toffee-like flavours. Horlicks already has salt in so you won’t need to add any more to the cake batter.

I’ve used a taller, narrower 20cm x 9cm cake tin which makes one taller cake with no layers but, should you prefer, pour the batter into two sandwich tins instead, reducing the baking time accordingly. If you make it as a layer cake, you may wish to sandwich it together with sweetened whipped cream before applying the frosting. Stirring in banana slices or walnuts might be a nice touch too.

TO MAKE THE CAKE

250g butter, softened

225g caster sugar

200g malted milk powder

3 medium eggs

250g spelt flour

2 tsp baking powder

4 decently sized ripe bananas

Grease the tin and preheat oven to 200C. Lay the bananas on a baking sheet and roast until their skins are black, starting to split and your kitchen is filled with their aroma. This will take around 15 minutes but keep an eye on them. Remove from the oven and allow to cool and turn the oven down to 175C.

Cream the butter, sugar and milk powder together until fully incorporated. Beat the eggs and add them slowly, beating all the time. Add the baking powder to the spelt flour and fold the flour in until you have a heavy, well combined batter.

Scrape the banana flesh from their skins, ensure there are no lumps and add, mixing well. Spoon the batter into your tin and bake for 45 minutes. If it starts to brown too quickly, cover the top with foil. After 45 minutes, check to see that the cake is cooked through and if not, keep baking until done. It’s important to leave the cake to fully cool in its tin before removing it for frosting.

Note: I have also made this cake using a food processor with a plastic paddle attachment, adding the ingredients in the same stages as above. It worked very well.

TO MAKE THE FROSTING

125g butter, softened

500g icing sugar

100g malted milk powder

4-5 tablespoons milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk all the ingredients together, adding the milk incrementally until the frosting is fluffy. You may need to add a little more milk to get a spreadable consistency but don’t let it get too thin.

TO MAKE THE WALNUT BRITTLE

150g caster sugar

75g walnuts, crushed.

Heat the sugar in a heavy-based saucepan until it is melted and golden-brown. Swirling the sugar around as it melts will help the process but do not stir it. When it’s done, add the walnuts, remove the pan from the heat and working swiftly, stir them in before pouring the mixture onto a greased or non- stick baking sheet. Allow to set then smash the brittle up into pieces.

ASSEMBLY

Brush the top and sides of the cake with a pastry brush to remove loose crumbs. Using a palette knife, apply a thick layer of frosting to the top and sides, swirling as you wish. Leave the frosting to set then scatter the walnut brittle on top.