My mother is going to hate this story.
Several years ago, when I was first starting to take baking seriously, every recipe that I read seemed to include the words “stand mixer”. I did not own a stand mixer and I was not completely convinced of the soundness of investing in one. Those things are expensive. I wasn’t sure I liked baking that much. I could buy a nice piece of furniture or an airline ticket with that money. And a hand mixer seemed to get the job done pretty well. Those Kitchenaid mixers were pretty, but my budget really did not allow for one.
At the time, I was still a smoker but I was weary of the habit and longed for a way to rid myself of it. I hit upon an idea. The cost of a stand mixer was the equivalent of my cigarette budget for two months. Horrifying, but true. If I did not touch a single cigarette for two months, then I would allow myself the purchase of a stand mixer. I have always responded well to reward systems so I was certain this would get me through those first two months of quitting. It didn’t guarantee success but I thought it would give me a really good shot.
I did not tell anyone of this plan. I smoked my “last” cigarette and marked the date of stand mixer purchase on my calendar. And it worked. Two weeks passed without a single cigarette. My withdrawal wasn’t even that bad. I think I only threatened to kill, like, two people. This was going to work. I started gathering the recipes I would make with my new mixer. And then on the fifteen day mark, a giant box arrived on my doorstep. My mother had seen a stand mixer on sale and had impulsively purchased it and mailed it to me. For no reason. Just because she does things like that. Just because she knew I was really getting into this cooking and baking thing and she is unbelievably generous. And because sometimes she has freakishly bad timing. So I smoked a cigarette while I read the instructions for my new mixer. And then I made some banana cake.
The smoking is no longer a part of my life. But the banana cake makes a regular and repeated appearance during the winter months. There is something snuggly about it. Also, it holds up well when you wrap it in foil and throw it in a bag to take with you for later. I like to turn this particular banana cake recipe into muffins for maximum portability, though it is easily doubled and turned into a loaf.
Now these muffins are terrific just as they are with nothing else added. But sometimes you want a little more from your muffin. Mix in a handful of chocolate chips (dark chocolate is my favorite but white chocolate is also fantastic) or some chopped toasted nuts and you have a whole other muffin. But this time, as I looked through my pantry, none of those things sounded like what exactly I wanted. I had images of my grandmother’s coffeecake streusel dancing in my head.
Now my grandmother’s coffeecake is the stuff of legend. A perfect balance of salty and sweet, cinnamon and buttermilk. But for most people the cake itself is just a vessel for that streusel. So I figured it could easily be transported on to another cake.
I made the banana muffin batter and a small batch of the coffeecake topping. But then I couldn’t decide if I wanted to sprinkle the streusel on top, have it layered inside the middle or maybe have a big streusel center. The great thing about muffins is that you are making twelve of them so you can assemble them any or all of these ways and decide later which is your favorite.
The ones with the streusel center didn’t plump up much at all. Their tops stayed flat and even, but the disappointment was entirely visual. They did the best job of keeping the two flavors distinct within a single bite.
The ones with the streusel ribbon plumped up the most, with those nice round tops, but the streusel flavor was just a small note beneath the banana flavor. Still this was by far the fluffiest version with the biggest banana flavor.
The streusel on top puts the streusel flavor front and center. The banana flavor comes sneaking in afterwards.
The muffins are delicious all three ways.
BANANA STREUSEL MUFFINS (Adapted from Dorie Greenspan and my Grandma Alice)
Makes a dozen muffins.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) salted butter, at room temperature*
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste**
1 large egg, at room temperature
2-3 very ripe bananas, mashed (about 3/4 cup)***
1/4 cup sour cream****
1/4 cup nonfat greek yogurt****
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 pinch of ground nutmeg
1 pinch of salt
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center.
Butter a large 12 cup muffin pan or line it with paper muffin cups.
Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside. (Don’t lose the whisk. You’ll use it for the streusel.)
Cream the butter in a stand mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add the sugar and combine, scrapping the sides of the bowl as needed, until fluffy. Add the vanilla bean paste, egg and banana one at a time, mixing until each is well incorporated before adding the next one. Then reduce speed to low and add half the flour mixture. Do not overmix. Add the sour cream and yogurt. Once those are incorporated, I remove the bowl from the stand mixer and stir in the remaining flour mixture by hand so I can ensure it does not overmix. You want to mix to the point that no dry ingredients are visible and then stop.
Now make your streusel. (You can use the bowl that your flour mixture was in.) Combine the two sugars and whisk together, breaking up any clumps. Add the flour, nutmeg, salt and cinnamon. Once the dry ingredients are combined, add the vegetable oil and mix until you have a nice wet crumble. (It should be the texture of wet sand.)
Now take the muffin pan. Here are the three ways to assemble the muffins:
1) Streusel top – Fill the muffin cup 3/4 full. Sprinkle streusel so it covers the top entirely.
2) Streusel ribbon – Fill the muffin cup halfway. Sprinkle streusel generously and then add more muffin batter on top, completely covering streusel.
3) Streusel center – Fill the muffin cup 2/3 full. Form the streusel into a little ball, about one teaspoon size. Push the ball into the center of the muffin batter.
Place the muffin pan in the center of the oven and back for about 25 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for five minutes and then remove from pan (carefully using a knife) and finish cooling on a baking rack.
* The original recipe called for unsalted butter and you can certainly use that here, but I am a huge fan of a strong salt presence in my baked goods and swapping in salted butter here achieved the desired result. But if you are watching your salt intake, you can make the swap back to unsalted butter with no repercussions.
** You may not be familiar with vanilla bean paste but let me introduce you to it. It is very similar to vanilla extract only vanilla bean seeds are added to the mixture and the result is much more viscous. It only costs a few dollars more than high quality vanilla extract and I swap it out for extract in almost everything, but if you cannot get your hands on some, vanilla extract will do the job.
*** You will need two large or three medium bananas to make a 3/4 cup. You want those really ripe bananas where the skin has gone black and insides are all brown. I use a liquid measuring cup and mash the banana directly in that cup because I am always looking for ways to use less bowls.
**** The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt and I have made it both ways. I like what yogurt does for the texture and what sour cream does for the flavor, so I split the difference and use 1/4 cup of each, but you can easily use one or the other.