ONCE UPON A time, in approximately 1930, an unknown recipe developer looked at the rotting bananas on the counter and thought, “I’ll use these in a cake!” This genius deserves a statue, or a posthumous Medal of Honor, as banana bread still inspires us to turn our use-them-or-lose-them fruits, vegetables and pantry items into baked goods. Collectively, we are more than happy to “let them eat cake.”
Banana bread’s roots likely were a fruitless nut loaf, already named “Old-Fashioned Nut Loaf” in a 1934 General Foods pamphlet titled “The Latest Cake Secrets.” The Great Depression coincided with the introduction of packaged double-acting baking powder, and that extra boost countered the fruit’s heavy moisture. Converting elderly produce into family breakfast has obvious appeal when money’s tight, and the variants came fast and furious.
Take one basic nut loaf; add a little leavener to sell the newfangled tins of baking powder; mix in mashed produce (banana, persimmon or winter squash) or grated (zucchini, carrot, beet or parsnip). (Potatoes, sweet potatoes and apples could be grated or pureed.) By 1974’s “Beard on Bread,” James Beard wrote that cracked loaves are “entirely typical of the genre,” and indeed they always seem to split.
Next came the era of canned goods in cakes. Kicking off with 1937’s mayonnaise cake (it’s sensible — the emulsion of oil and eggs makes tender cake), this category includes numerous 1950s soda cakes, replacing milk with Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, 7UP, Orange Fanta or club soda. The 1960s added sauerkraut cake in the grated vegetable category, and Campbell’s tomato soup cake (essentially a salty fruit puree; it makes good spice cake).
Some recipes, born from soaring food costs or an environmentally driven desire to reduce food waste, swap overripe bananas for their peels. Aroona Reejhsinghani included banana peel halwa in her 1974 “Tasty Dishes from Waste Items,” a predecessor to Lindsay-Jean Hard’s 2018 banana peel cake. After making both, I’m comfortable declaring that bananas and banana peels are mighty close, once cooked.
In case banana peels aren’t surprising enough, let me introduce a particularly eye-catching combination found in the anonymously authored 1979 book “A Collection of the Very Finest Recipes”: cake mix, instant pudding, nutmeg and grated eggplant. When I baked it (it was too odd to resist), eggplant was not the issue: The mixes made it overwhelmingly sweet.
The riffs keep coming. Numerous bloggers have replaced soda with La Croix seltzer in pound cakes. Kwame Onwuachi included his grandmother’s zucchini bread in “My America: Notes from a Young Black Chef”; crushed pineapple and nutmeg give delicious new life to an otherwise traditional loaf. In what seems entirely new, Kate Hackworthy’s “Veggie Desserts and Cakes” book features vanilla cake with pureed frozen peas. It tastes like vanilla cake.
My own contribution to this welcoming family sticks with eggplant (again, it’s too odd to resist) but ditches boxed mix. For the less adventurous, this was tested with grated zucchini (squeezed in a towel to extract its liquid) and peeled, grated apple replacing the eggplant, with minimal differences in flavor and texture. All three loaves cracked down the middle, as Beard decreed.
Eggplant Spice Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs, room temperature
½ cup buttermilk
1½ cups (6.5 ounces) peeled, coarsely grated eggplant
1. Butter an 8×4-inch loaf pan, and set aside. Heat oven to 350℉.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In a separate small bowl, whisk together melted butter, vanilla, eggs and buttermilk. Using a large spatula, stir the wet mixture into the dry until just a few streaks of flour remain. Fold shredded eggplant into batter until flour streaks are no longer visible.
3. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
4. Rest in the pan for 5 minutes, then loosen the sides and place on a rack to finish cooling.