Molly Wizenberg's Orangette was one of the first food blogs I got hooked on in the mid-2000s.
Among other trailblazers like 101 Cookbooks and Smitten Kitchen, Orangette merged memoir-flavoured food writing and 'open source' recipes in a format I found uniquely addictive. As Molly herself explains, she used home cooking as 'a lens for examining everyday life and relationships'. I enjoyed reading about her impressions of San Francisco (my then-boyfriend had moved there after we broke up in 2007) and Seattle, but also about her developing relationship with Brandon (spoiler alert: eventual husband), whom she met in true millennial fashion: on the Internet.
When Molly got a book deal around 2007 or 2008, it was part of a snowballing movement in which bloggers — often self-described hobbyists who’d built up significant online followings — were transitioning to print and achieving success in mainstream publication, a shift I found both fascinating and inspirational (having always blogged in one form or another).
I can remember lending a dog-eared copy of A Homemade Life to my father almost immediately after I read it myself. I ordered it online around the time my already tenuous mid-20s life was crashing and burning around me, and I'd moved back in 'temporarily' (i.e. for FOUR GODDAMN YEARS) with my parents, who were initiating a separation after almost 30 years of marriage. The book, which interweaves stories and recipes, echoed my own tangled but tender feelings towards food and family, especially the deep respect and affection I feel for my dad, who is simultaneously so easy and so challenging to love.
But then there was the banana bread.
Molly's recipe for banana bread with glacé ginger and dark chocolate is the only recipe for banana bread I've come back to over and over again... for the last decade. I hate to use the word 'elevated' in relation to something like this — the most promiscuous and pervasive of coffee shop/home kitchen staples — but it really is. The sweet spiciness of the finely chopped ginger and the mildly bitter depth of the dark chocolate chunks add complexity and substance to what can otherwise be bland and monotonal — but in the most natural, rather than gratuitous, way — especially when the bread is served toasted and warm with a streak or two of salted butter.
I have a peculiar relationship with bananas in that I love them in other foods but cannot endure them on their own, straight from the peel. In fact, when my well-meaning mother gave me a banana to eat as a snack, Child Amber would break it into little pieces and push the lumps of fruit through a hole in the fly screen of her bedroom window. In a smoothie, however? Bananas are fine. Cakes? Pikelets? Pies? Yes, please.
This banana bread remains my favourite because it tolerates a variety of interventions and bastardisations yet is somehow always good (a common thread among so many of my favourite recipes). But although I've toyed with types of flour and levels of sugar over time (to reach the variation I've shared below), I've never deviated too far from Molly's original flavour profile. I don't quite understand why the ginger and dark chocolate work so well together, and against the backdrop of the banana, but I never make this banana bread without at least a handful of each stirred through the batter. It's my holy grail banana bread, and I anticipate at least another decade of devotion.
It's funny what changes over time.
And what stays the same.
In the years since A Homemade Life was published, Molly has written two other books: Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage (which probably needs no further explanation) and, most recently, The Fixed Stars, detailing the subsequent phase of Molly's life — understanding herself anew, coming out, negotiating a divorce, and learning the art of co-parenting. It became available in Australia only towards the end of last year, so I'm yet to read it, but I did read a number of Molly's essays in the lead-up to the book's release, and it's on my to-read list for 2021.
Molly's writing, for me, reiterates the reality that any ongoing search for authenticity may eventually surprise and also wound us. As much as we're drawn to narrative arcs and tidy resolutions/revelations, life doesn't really work that way: self-discovery, understanding, and honest expression are unending projects, and perhaps giving yourself permission to change — to discard identities and intimacies that no longer fit, no matter how painful it may be — is one of life's most difficult but crucial ventures.
In the interim, there's always banana bread.
PS I ate this almost every day for several months of lockdown. ;)
Slightly bastardised banana bread (with glacé ginger and dark chocolate)
Some of my family and friends describe me as an excellent baker, but while I do enjoy the occasional success, I have unfortunately inherited my mother's tendency for skimming recipes and disregarding instructions about ingredients and steps. Embarrassingly, it's only recently that I've discovered how important it is to use ripe, spotty-skinned bananas in baking: the end result will be fluffier and almost definitely sweeter, so you can often use less sugar. Win-win. (Unripe bananas, it must also be noted, can produce a distinctly rubbery crumb.)
I use three medium bananas for this recipe. If I've got big bananas (not a euphemism), sometimes I split the third banana lengthways so I can mash half for the batter and then lay the other half over the top of the uncooked loaf before baking — because that's what people seem to do on Instagram, y'all.
90g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 medium-sized bananas, mashed
2 large eggs
1/4 cup full-fat yoghurt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (I usually use spelt and add an extra tablespoon)
2 tbs coconut sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
50–100g chopped dark chocolate (I like to chop it unevenly so the texture ranges from fine dust to little shards and larger chunks)
1/3 cup finely chopped crystallised ginger
As a first step, preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius, then grease and line a standard loaf pan and set aside.
In a large bowl, stir together the melted butter, mashed bananas, eggs, yoghurt, and vanilla extract until evenly combined.
In a separate bowl, thoroughly mix the flours, sugar, baking soda, and salt.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet in two batches, stirring gently so you don't overmix them.
Finally, topple in the chopped chocolate and crystallised ginger, stirring only briefly to even distribute them among the batter.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tin.
Bake for around 40 minutes until the top of the load is golden and the centre is firm.