17 August 2013

They have arrived

1979. My mother is a music student (piano). There is a tour to Bulgaria organized by her conservatory, and she applies to go. The application process involves an evaluation talk with a Komsomol commission, the members of which will have to decide if she is trustworthy enough to leave the country's borders. (To Bulgaria! So pro-communist then that it was known in the internal circles as an unofficial Soviet republic at the time!) In the end, it's a no. It's all unspoken, but she is dressed in clothes that look too Western (where does she get those from?); her last (maiden) name ends with -ovich and is therefore Jewish?

1989. My mother, now thirty one, is on a plane to Vilnius, Lithuania. Together with my late grandmother she is going to buy a luggage-ful of men's and women's clothes and maybe some footware to be sold among friends and acquaintances. Those goods are as close to Western as one can get. They are one of a kind in Shakhty and go fast. (From this trip I, then five, saw two summer dresses with short lantern sleeves -- one dress with butterflies and the other with chamomile flowers -- and a pack of Donuld Duck bubble gum.)  There followed two more Vilnius-bound trips, now alone. It would be alright but for one thing. My mother kept bringing the nicest looking attire as opposed to the better-priced one, and convinced that such approach disserved the "business", and besides, a mucisian would never know how to negotiate numbers, my late grandmother, a natural enterpreneur, "dismissed" my mother off her duties as a buyer. And so, Vilnius was as far abroad as my mother ever got to, and considering that back then Lithuania was still a part of the USSR, technically it wasn't even abroad.

The furthest my father went was Eastern Russia. No enteprenueral venture, this was his latest month-long work trip, in the grasp of winter, and the most memorable part of the month for him was seeing the endless Siberian taiga from the plane on his way back home.

This afternoon my parents flew in to Amsterdam for a ten-day visit. We were on the phone last night to iron out all the details -- what's English for this and that, what to say to a customs officers, and other such things -- and I could hear they were excited, a little proud even. I understand why. They are both in their fifties now. For two thirds of their lives a possibility to go abroad had been unimaginable because of the ideology and politics, then for another third because of the poor economy. For a change, I'm on the receiving end today and they have arrived. (Big thanks to the airport staffer who kindly walked them to the passport control after they had wandered off into transit zone and with an intention to collect the luggage stood in line for a flight to Mexico City.)
There will be important museums and the glimmer of canals and interesting faces and tall, tilted houses to look at and around. They will probably see Olivia the Cat Lady, and, with a little bit of luck, catch a glimpse of The Butt-Naked Man (I haven't seen him in a long while.) But so far, I cooked an Indian meal and baked banana bread for them tonight. They didn't have a banana bread like this before, I don't think. Heck, I didn't have a banana bread like this before either.

Here is what's unusual about it. First: instead of banana mush there is banana mash inside this one. Nigel Slater -- whose recipe it is and whose latest book, Kitchen Diaries II, in vein with his others, is magic! -- doesn't crush bananas into a smooth puree. He mashes them, ripe, almost sickly, with a fork to a lumpy state. This is smart, because later, when the bread is baked, these lumps will be those pleasant chunks of the moist and fragrant fruit that I always miss in a banana bread. (O how I'm upset with those banana breads whose only ties to a banana is in the title.) Then, there is chocolate, and its amount here is so right that it doesn't overpower banana flavor one bit. What it does is mingle with those banana lumps mid-mouthful and excite the palate. What's good for banana besides chocolate? Caramel. Its notes are here too, thanks to muscovado sugar.

Nigel Slater's Chocolate Muscovado Banana Cake (Bread) 
Adapted from Kitchen Diaries II, by Nigel Slater
Yield: 1 loaf

I will avoid the discussion of whether it's bread or cake, this. It's all in the baking vessel, isn't it? Commonly, cake comes from a baking tin and bread from a loaf pan. But seeing that Slater christens it as chocolate muscovado cake and bakes it as a loaf, I'll go ahead and say this: no matter. To me, banana bread rolls off the tongue, and banana cake does not. But never mind.

If you have the book, you will notice I upped vanilla extract to two teaspoons here. For me, a teaspoon is somewhat unnoticed amongst such heavy weights.

250 g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
125 g butter, softened
235 g muscovado or dark brown sugar
3-4 very ripe bananas (400 g peeled weight)
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
100 g dark chocolate

Line a standard-size loaf tin (24cm*12cm*7cm) with baking paper, leaving a little overhang throughout. Heat the oven to 180 C (350 F). Sift the flour and baking powder together.

In a bowl, mash the bananas with a fork. The mixture should be lumpy. Stir in the vanilla extract. Chop the chocolate into small pieces the size of fine gravel.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs until incorporated. Stir in the bananas and chocolate. Gently fold the flour and baking powder into the banana batter. Pour the mixture into the lined baking tin and bake, rotating the tin halfway through, for about fifty minutes. Check for doneness by inserting a metal skewer into the centre. If the skewer comes out moist but clean the bread (cake) is ready. If not, put the bread (cake) back in the oven for a few more minutes and cover the surface with foil.
Leave the bread (cake) in the tin to settle and cool for 15 minutes, then remove from the tin by lifting the baking paper up and out. Cool some more before carefully peeling off the paper. Serve cool, in thick (!) slices. Wrapped in foil, keeps for up to a week.