The banana is one of the most widely consumed fruits in the world. It is the first fruit that is offered to infants, and as those infants become children and then adults, they continue to enjoy bananas in a variety of ways. In fact, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it is America’s favorite fruit! It can also be considered an almost perfect food because it is a low-calorie (110 calories on average) source of energy, potassium, magnesium, fiber and antioxidants. Surprisingly, bananas also provide vitamin C, and their vitamin B-6 is essential for strengthening the nervous system and the production of white blood cells.


Most people serve bananas with their morning cereal or slip one into a lunchbox. But, when bananas have been sitting around a couple of days too long, they are better suited to using in baked goods and other desserts. Here are four favorites that owe their unique flavor to bananas.

BANANA PUDDING
Every self-respecting southern cook has banana pudding in his or her repertoire. Containing prodigious amounts of sliced bananas, vanilla wafers, vanilla custard and whipped cream, this classic dessert never goes out of style. Our easy, unorthodox version is adapted from a recipe developed by the iconic Magnolia Bakery in New York City. Despite its northern origin, it is absolutely irresistible!

1 (3 ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix
1 1/2 cups water
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups whipping cream
1 (12 ounce) box vanilla wafers
4 bananas, sliced

Several hours or the day before serving, combine the first three ingredients in a large bowl, mixing until smooth. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight, until mixture is firm. In a large bowl, with mixer on high, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold two-thirds of the whipped cream into the chilled pudding mixture. Refrigerate the remaining whipped cream while assembling pudding. Using a straight-sided glass bowl or casserole, layer the vanilla wafers, bananas and pudding mixture. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Just before serving, spread the remaining whipped cream on top of the pudding. Serves 10 to 12.

HUMMINGBIRD CAKE
Another southern specialty, this fruit-filled, dense cake will be especially welcome at almost any holiday event.

CAKE:
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 ½ cups canola oil
2 cups mashed bananas
3 eggs
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, undrained
½ cup chopped walnuts

ICING:
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
½ cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

For the cake, combine the first 4 ingredients in a 4-cup measure; set aside. In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until well combined. Stir in the flour mixture, and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Grease a 10-inch tube pan or Bundt pan, and dust with flour. (Or coat with vegetable spray.) Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake in a preheated 300-degree oven for 1 ½ hours. The cake will crack slightly on top. Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 1 hour before removing. Then invert the cake onto a large serving platter. To prepare the icing: in a medium bowl, with mixer on medium, cream the cream cheese, butter and vanilla until light and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar, beating until icing has a smooth spreading consistency. Spread over top and sides of the cooled cake, and refrigerate until serving. Serves 12 to 15.

GLUTEN-FREE BANANA MUFFINS
Most banana desserts are calorie-laden affairs. Here is the happy exception, which is not only gluten-free but also low-fat.

2 cups old fashioned oats
2 ripe bananas, mashed
2 eggs
1 cup nonfat or regular plain Greek yogurt
¼ cup brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup chocolate chips

Prepare a muffin tin by spraying the cups with vegetable spray. If using paper liners, spray the insides of the liners as well. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place oats in container of food processor, and process until the oats are powdery. Add the next 6 ingredients, and process until batter is smooth. By hand, stir in the chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared muffin cups, filling each about ¾ full. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until muffins appear set. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing. Leftover muffins can be frozen. Makes 1 dozen.

DOUBLE CHOCOLATE CHIP BANANA BREAD
Since time immemorial, banana bread has been the go-to recipe for using up over-ripe bananas. It got to a point where many people experienced banana bread fatigue! Thanks to the folks at King Arthur Flour, this new treatment reinvigorates the experience. One person told me it tasted like brownies! I like to double the recipe and bake multiple loaves in mini-loaf pans and freeze them for impromptu occasions.

1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ripe bananas, mashed
½ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1 cup chocolate chips

In a 2-cup measure, combine the first 4 ingredients. In a medium bowl, with mixer on medium, beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the next 4 ingredients until smooth. At low speed, gradually add the flour mixture until well incorporated. By hand, fold in the chocolate chips. Pour the batter into a greased 8-by-4inch loaf pan or 3 mini-loaf pans. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven 1 hour if using the larger loaf pan, or 45 minutes for the smaller pans—or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool loaves in pans for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Then turn out onto the rack to cool completely. Wrap in foil and refrigerate or freeze. Makes 1-3 loaves.



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