Friday, 12 October 2007

Banana cake muffins (Κέικ μπανάνας)

Banana cake is my favorite NZ tea-and-coffee accompaniment. Sadly, we never made it at home; my mother used to bake all the staple Greek sweets that my own family now enjoys in my own home, but she never made true NZ banana cake. She once made a Greek cake, to which she added bananas, but it still tasted like Greek cake, rather than the moist banana bread the Edmonds cookbook recipe turns into. We used to buy some as an occassional treat when we were in town. I remember a day when I was wearing my school uniform (a teal colour; most people would not know what the word 'teal' meant, let alone be able to visualise it as a colour), doing some shopping with my mother in James Smiths, or maybe Farmers, or was it Woolworths? It can't have been anywhere else, because they were my mother's favorite stores; you could find anything you wanted in them. If you wanted to buy someone a wedding gift, you went to James Smiths', if you wanted good quality moderately priced household goods, you went to Farmers, and if you wanted to buy lollies, you went to Woolworths. To get there, we had to pass the Dixon St deli where we used to buy salami and olives once the Italian grocery near our house closed down due to a sharp decline in trade when Wellingtonians began to take delight in visiting the new supermarkets and shopping malls that were sprouting up in the suburbs. We never did indulge in such activities as a trip to New World in Newtown, or Pak'n'Save in Kilbirnie. We lived just above Kent Terrace; we didn't need to go to Newtown or Kilbirnie. We had it all on Courtenay Place and Manners St.

I must have asked her then if we could buy some of the banana cake I was looking at in the window of a cake shop; I don't think it would have been on her shopping list. She bought two huge slices of it - each slice could have been cut into three decent portions. The aroma permeated our shopping bags. It smelt and felt like the cake my schoolmates bought in their lunchboxes. I was so happy when the shop assistant gave her the brown paper bag containing the cake. I couldn't wait to go home and have it with---

Before I had thought about how it would look in our banana-cake-less house, and how we were going to enjoy it as part of our tea, my mother suggested we could eat it by the Cuba St bucket fountain a few metres away from the deli. I hadn't expected this; without thinking, I just said 'OK'. She was treating me to some banana cake, so I felt I must reciprocate by taking her up on her offer. Mother and daughter sat silently, back to back (the outdoor seating was to blame) in the pedestrian zone, our shopping bags beside us, devouring the XL slices of banana cake by ourselves. I had a sudden panic attack, the feeling that I was in the wrong place. Two plump olive-skinned sheilas among a majority of paler faces, eating inappropriately oversized portions of a light dainty sweet,disregarding the ettiquette involved with eating banana cake. As I was sitting there with my mother gorging on my piece, the thought came to me that she never made this cake at home because she didn't know what to do with it. I wanted to tell her that we should have been sitting indoors, not outdoors, having a hot drink, stirring sugar cubes in a cup of tea sitting primly on a saucer, not scoffing it down in the middle of the street. I wanted to tell her that she didn't have to feel a stranger in NZ any longer, that she was a part of the melting pot culture that composed the genetic make-up of the average Kiwi, that there were plenty of other foreigners like her who were happy to be called a Kiwi, and they let their children be Kiwis just like the pale-faced lot. She had been in New Zealand for nearly 20 years at that point. By virtue of her years in the country, she had more claim to being a New Zealander than I did. I was tired of being a stranger in my own country, doing everything differently at home from what I did at shcool. We could make banana cake at home too, and eat it like the other girls did at school.

But we never did. So we sat there silently, not really knowing what to do with it now that we had it, so we did whatever came naturally to us. We were sitting there by chance, partaking in an experience that we did not want to be a part of. I wasn't being a fair dinkum Kiwi; instead I felt like a fraud, masquerading as a local in a Wellington Girls' uniform, hiding my true self. At the same time, I had a sense that I wasn't the good Greek girl I was supposed to be, either, because I was eating a huge piece of cake that I should have shared with the people who were passing by, especially the ones that smiled to us, mainly the Maori. They seemed to understand us better than the pale-faced lot. They looked more like us too with their dark features. Maybe just the lips; theirs were fuller than ours, but the shades of skin, hair and eyes were the same.

When I moved to Greece, the first cookbook that I bought on my first return visit to NZ was the Edmonds cookbook. I bought myself a loaf tin, and made banana cake regularly. I kept it in an old biscuit box with a Victorian scene on the lid. I ate it in small slices. I lived on my own, so I had no one to share it with. I had to eat it by myself. I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, three slices a day. I may as well have eaten a slice as big as the Dixon St deli's and got it over and done with all at once. When I got married, I made it for my husband. He didn't like it. "Why don't you try making a Greek cake, Maria?" I knew what he'd say next: "Now that you don't live in Greece, you can't expect to cook like a New Zealander, like you did back home." Alas, how could he know that my late mother only cooked Greek food? Now that I was in Greece, I couldn't cook Greek food, because all I wanted to eat was Kiwi food. I had severed my past in so many ways, but I could not sever my taste buds completely from Kiwi kai. I never felt I belonged anywhere.

I was adamant that someone would eat my favorite cake with me. It had to be someone who had no past experience of what constituted Greek food or Kiwi food, someone who couldn't compare one cooking style to another. Finally my banana cake companions came along: my children. And to make sure that they feel at ease about eating banana cake, I muffinise all my cakes now, simply because muffins make decent-sized servings that do not lead to obesity, as well as leaving no crumbs. They also make for easier lunch box packing. Here's the genuine dinkum Kiwi cake recipe of choice from the bible of Kiwi cooking, the New Zealand Edmonds cookbook, altered for my Greek kitchen and supplemented by an extra addition of healthy goodness with locally collected walnuts. The mixture makes 18 medium-sized muffins, something between the giant sized ones you buy from 'health' shops (just think how healthy it is to over-eat), and the mini-sized ones that may be served as hors d'oeuvres (kids would need at least two of those for their morning break).

You need:

a muffin tin lined with paper-cases (or a greased or lined loaf tin)
2 bananas
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
3/4 cup sugar
125g margarine
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon bi-carb soda
200g self-raising flour
2/3 cup finely ground walnuts

In a bowl, blend (or whisk) together the bananas, eggs, vanilla, sugar and margarine. In a cup, mix together the soda with the milk. When it is frothy, pour it into the banana mixture. Mix in the flour to make a batter which isn't runny. Mix in the walnuts and spoon the mixture into the paper cases. If you fill them to the top, they will rise into mini-cakes when cooked; otherwise, fill them 2/3 of the way up, so that they remain as big as the paper case. Cook in a medium-hot oven till the cakes are done (test them with a toothpick). Let them cool before you serve them. To keep them for a week, store them in an air-tight tin. They can also be frozen; they defrost well in a child's schoolbag, so that by break-time, they are ready to eat.

Coincdentally, there is no mention of banana cake in the fifth edition of Edmonds cookbook which came out in 1914, not forgetting that the first edition of the Edmonds cookbook came out in 1907. How on earth d'ja know that, you might be wondering. It is in my possession, among other bits of New Zealand trivia that I could not bear to part with as I've already discussed in my afghan recipe). My edition with the banana cake recipe was published in 1983, but I've seen similar recipes on the internet for banana bread, all using the same ingredients, more or less. When were bananas readily available in New Zealand? The British must have known them since they discovered the Carribean, but when did they become readily avaialble in New Zealand? There's a tricky one for all of us to think about. MissJilly also mentions a nice simple banana cake recipe which could be used alternatively.

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