By now you should realise that you can’t expect cutting-edge food fashion from me. I’m solidly home-cook material, and by that I don’t mean Masterchef or MKR “home-cook”. I like to cook everyday food that’s not too complicated, with the occasional elevation only when I have time to fuss. I save the wow and panache for restaurant chefs who usually do it best, and, let’s be real, have armies of kitchen hands to prepare fiddly individual components and deal with the washing up.
This focus on simple and everyday food means that I rarely rush out to buy novel ingredients. It usually takes quite a while for me to try a new food fad at home, which means that by the time I do, the fad in question has become thoroughly mainstream. Take cacao nibs, for instance, which have wended their way into everything lately. Part of the current raw-chocolate revolution, cacao nibs are popular for their lack of sugar and antioxidant properties, delivering intense chocolatey flavour without the calories. Food bloggers have gone cacao nib-wild, putting them into everything from cookies and smoothies, bliss balls and granola and even in salad. I threw a packet into my shopping basket a few months ago, like the hipster I thought I was, only to find later that food bloggers have been featuring them since 2005. For goodness sake, I’m practically ten years behind the cool kids.
I’m the same with technology. I only got my first mobile phone back in 2005 when my seven-years younger sister upgraded hers, enabling me to inherit her old pre-paid one which barely kept a charge for longer than half a day and would only receive network coverage when propped up in a very specific spot on the window-ledge in my office. My office-pod-mate is forever having to support my under-developed iPhone and iPad skills, much to her amusement…and now I’m going to stop, before I make myself out to be a total Luddite, which I’m not. Frankly, I’m just lazy. I just can’t muster the will to keep up.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or maybe one of those old mobile phones like bricks that retailed for about $4,000) you will have heard of cacao nibs, which can be found at most large supermarkets or organic food stores. If you can bear to part with the cash to purchase these brown bits of woody matter, then do I have a recipe for you. Like most excellent and reliably performing recipes, this one comes from a baker with an established reputation, in this case, David Lebovitz. I had been making a modified version of David’s Banana & Chocolate Chip Upside Down Cake for years (except not upside down, without the caramelised banana topping, and usually as 12 muffins rather than cake) until one day recently when, halfway through making it, I discovered that I didn’t have enough 70% chocolate. Scrounging the pantry in desperation I spotted the packet of cacao nibs that I had bought in that moment of abandon. I made up the difference in nibs…and now there is no other way that I can make this cake. Necessity really is the mother of invention.
It’s such a good cake, even without the nibs. It’s fragrance has to be experienced to be believed. Heady with vanilla and cinnamon, just smelling this cake while it bakes is almost enough to satisfy. Best the day after it is baked, the cake is soft and moist with a hint of spice enlivening the childishly comforting flavour of banana. The cacao nibs provide a beguiling texture, simultaneously crunchy and chewy, and they have this weird effect of making your mouth feel momentarily cool: it’s like popping candy for grown-ups. If you can’t find cacao nibs then simply use a double quantity of dark chocolate, as I did for years. But if you can find them, then this cake is a great introduction to these chocolatey little nuggets. All the coolest kids are doing it these days.
Banana Cake with Chocolate & Cacao
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
30g unsalted butter, melted
1 cup mashed ripe banana
1/2 cup plain yoghurt or buttermilk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
45g raw cacao nibs
45g dark (70%) chocolate, roughly chopped (or dark chocolate chips)
Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F. Prepare a 20 cm cake tin with a paper bottom and buttered sides. Alternatively, if you wish to make muffins, prepare a muffin tin with 12 paper cases.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and sugar in a large bowl until thoroughly combined.
In another bowl, stir together the melted butter, eggs, mashed banana, yoghurt and vanilla extract. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Stir together gently until almost combined. Fold in the cacao nibs and chocolate pieces, being careful not to overmix the batter.
Transfer the batter into the cake tin and spread out to an even layer (or spoon into the paper muffin cases). Place in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean (muffins take about 18-20 minutes). Cool completely on a rack. The cake/muffins taste best the day after being baked.