I had no idea raisins were so divisive. Is it possible to be allergic to them? Many people appear to be, or is it one of those peccadilloes conveniently masquerading as an allergy (example: “I’m allergic to sparkling water”). Anyway, they are ‘not liked’ in a way I hadn’t encountered until quite recently. I could eat raisins all day, just so you know, particularly when they are allowed to seep for a while in some gorgeous, malty liquor. They plump up in the juice and turn a limpid gold. Then, when the cake is baked, they add both crunch and pop. Fragrant little bodies, they are.
This is a lovely cake to make if you are at a loss. A few blackening bananas are all that is required, along with the standard store cupboard ingredients. I made it constantly when I first arrived in LA three years ago; it was both escape and focus. I gave almost all of it away to neighbours, who seemed to take longer and longer to get to the door. It was good stuff, but perhaps they read into the gesture some of the desperation I was feeling. I didn’t drive and I couldn’t walk anywhere – the sidewalk around where we live peters out after five minutes, as if the people making it got distracted and forgot to finish. And walking has always been my lifeline. I sort out my thoughts that way, or I discover what my thoughts actually are. So the cake was my version of lowering knotted bed sheets out of the window – one of these neighbours would be my escape route, they would be my friend, hopefully give me a lift somewhere, and I could walk.
It never happened – they had jobs. And besides, I’m not a huge fan of the LA genre of walking, which is to spend most of your time in your car looking for somewhere to park. A corner shop, that’s what I wanted. A street, some grass, a view or two. Eventually I was forced behind the wheel, passing my test with white knuckles, my face a sheet of terror and disbelief. I hoped it was a one-off – the driving thing. I wanted to keep on taking the bus, scrambling over medians and edging my way along roads. But to say you don’t drive in LA is like saying “I don’t breathe.”
It’s nothing like walking, but occasionally when the road is emptying out and I see long, luxurious gaps up ahead, or I turn a corner and see a blank space for me to play with, accelerate into, I get a similar feeling in the car – a presence of mind, strangely empty of thought. Sometimes I like to cruise downhill, my foot hovering over the brake pedal, the breeze under my hair, and it’s like sailing and in those moments, I get it. I get California, and the invention of the car and why I’m here. I get the rush. And on the days that I don’t, I bake banana bread.
Banana and Raisin Bread
Adapted from Nigella Lawson, How To Be a Domestic Goddess
100g raisins (or sultanas)
75ml dark rum, bourbon or PX sherry
175g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
125g unsalted butter (melted)
150g caster sugar
2 large eggs
4 small very ripe bananas (mashed)
60g chopped walnuts (or pieces of dark chocolate)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Put the raisins and rum/bourbon (or Pedro Ximenez sherry) in a smallish saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, cover and leave for an hour if you can, or until the raisins have absorbed most of the liquid, then drain.
Preheat the oven to 170ºC/gas mark 3/325ºF and get started on the rest. Put the flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt in a medium-sized bowl and, using your hands or a wooden spoon, combine well. If you don’t like the taste of bicarb then leave it out.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar and beat until blended. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the mashed bananas. Then, with your wooden spoon, stir in the walnuts and/or chocolate, drained raisins and vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture, a third at a time, stirring well after each bit.
Scrape into a loaf tin (23 x 13 x 7cm / 9 x 5 x 3 inches) and bake in the middle of the oven for 1-1¼ hours. When it’s ready, an inserted toothpick or fine skewer should come out cleanish. Leave in the tin on a rack to cool, and eat thickly cut with a cup of strongly brewed builders’ tea.