Part of our month-long series on Food & Drink and how they enrich our lives.
Maybe everyone is nostalgic for the decade they grew up in, but for me, the ‘70s rocked. I have fond memories of paging through the phone book-sized Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog (phone books…what a quaint notion), lying splayed on my belly on a shag rug for a rousing round of Parcheesi, and saving my allowance to buy Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
One memory that is less delicious, though, is the food we ate in the ‘70s. America had yet to be Martha Stewart’ed or Food Network’ed, and the meals of my youth were simple affairs. My parents had separated the summer after I was in kindergarten, and my mother Edith had started her own thriving business. Time to experiment with recipes was in short supply, and there was a deep dependence on broiled fish, which my mom deemed “brain food.”
My sister Susan and I craved the convenience foods we saw advertised during afternoons of endless Gilligan’s Island reruns.
My sister Susan and I craved the convenience foods we saw advertised during afternoons of endless Gilligan’s Island reruns. We’d nag for Rice-A-Roni, Shake ‘N Bake, Hamburger Helper, Campbell’s Chunky soups, and all manner of other abominations. Our mom relented from time to time and bought these foods, which had probably been processed eons ago, when I was still learning to crawl. Susan and I especially begged for cakes from boxes: Duncan Hines? Hell, yes! Betty Crocker? Bring it on! Toss it into a bowl, with a splash of water and maybe an egg—we believed this was what baking was all about.
Whenever my mom would bake a batch of the muffins, the house would fill with the irresistible aroma—something sweeter and mellower than anything Betty Crocker could muster.
That was until my mother somehow got her hands on a remarkably easy and magical recipe for banana bread that could quickly be baked into muffins. She doesn’t remember exactly how she crossed paths with it, but someone passed it along to her and she decided to try it. It wasn’t your standard-issue banana treat with pecans. No, this recipe had dried apricots and walnuts. I had an insatiable appetite for apricot fruit leather back in the day, so the word “apricot” triggered a purely Pavlovian response in my tween-age self.
Whenever my mom would bake a batch of the muffins, the house would fill with the irresistible aroma—something sweeter and mellower than anything Betty Crocker could muster. I would gobble the muffins down at an alarming rate, amazed at how the ingredients came together in such a fantastic combination of sweet and tangy, soft and crunchy sensations. On more than one occasion, my mother thought I was pranking her—the muffins disappeared that quickly. “Janet, have you hidden them under your bed…in a drawer?” my mom would ask incredulously, unable to believe I had made such short work of so many.
Oddly enough, my sister was immune to the charms of these muffins. She preferred the more commercial thrill of a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies, and so the banana muffins became a special shared obsession for my mother and me.
The Muffin Bond
It became the one homemade baked good that I would request repeatedly, especially when home sick with asthma, which was very often in my childhood. I admit to sometimes wheezing as dramatically as possible to eke out another day at home, weasel-y malingerer that I was. That meant another day of organizing my collection of commemorative stamps instead of being drilled on the details of the American Revolution—and hopefully another batch of the banana muffins rather than my school’s mystery meat and Saltines. In the golden Kodak-moment haze of those years, I can clearly see me and my mother, sitting on the couch, demolishing the muffins as I thumbed through Seventeen magazines and she caught up on balancing her checkbook (another lost art).
I think my mom was thrilled to have hit upon a recipe that made her the heroic baker in our household. Raised in New York City by two working parents who emigrated from Hungary and barely spoke English, she hadn’t learned the then-womanly arts of cooking and baking. Her youth revolved around whipping through high school by age 15, perfecting the latest hairstyles (apparently an empty coffee can could be used as a roller to give one’s coiffure major height), and seeing Billie Holiday and other jazz greats perform on West 52nd Street.
By mashing a banana and tossing it together with an egg, flour, butter, milk, and some chopped up dried fruit and nuts, she had cemented her place in my canon of great chefs.
Like many women her age, she married early—it was how you got out of your parents’ house—and made up domestic life as she went along while working full time. There was no room in her life for ganache or fondant or puff pastry. No separating of eggs and whipping the whites into stiff peaks; no melting of chocolate in a double-boiler. This muffin recipe, though, gave her entrée to a bit of baking magic. By mashing a banana and tossing it together with an egg, flour, butter, milk, and some chopped up dried fruit and nuts, she had cemented her place in my canon of great chefs.
As I grew up and had my own family, the banana muffin recipe became a staple. I toyed with it, swapping in different dried fruit one time, adding chocolate chips another, but nothing satisfied the way the original did. Maybe it’s because those foods we’re given as a child, especially when ill, become our personal Proustian madeleines. Or maybe our taste buds coalesce at that age into an immutable palate.
The Best Banana Muffin Recipe In the World, Back in Heavy Rotation
The banana muffin baton has been passed, and I’m holding on tight.
Whatever the case, these muffins are with me lately, more than ever. My mother, now past age 90, has enjoyed the blessing of a long and healthy life, though lately her appetite has been waning. A half of a chicken sandwich seems more than enough for lunch. A similarly scant meal satisfies for dinner, too. I suspect she doesn’t see the point in cooking much when her appetite is so minimal. I wasn’t too concerned—until her doctor noticed a few pounds lost at a recent check-up and reached out to say that eating more calories should be a real focus.
And with that, I’ve gone into regular production of the muffins. I’ll swing by on a Saturday with a dozen, still warm from the oven, and remind her during the week of just how good one would taste with a cup of coffee.
Just as she made them when I needed them, I now happily return the favor. The banana muffin baton has been passed, and I’m holding on tight.
Edith’s Banana Muffins
- 2 c unsifted flour
- 1 t baking powder
- ½ t baking soda
- ½ t salt
- 1 c sugar
- ½ c chopped walnuts
- ½ c chopped dried apricots
- 1 mashed very ripe banana
- ½ c milk
- 1 egg, beaten
- ¼ c butter, melted
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and put cupcake liners in a muffin tin.
- Mix the first seven ingredients in a large bowl.
- Mix the rest of the ingredients in a medium bowl, and, once combined, add to the dry ingredients. Stir till incorporated.
- Divide the batter into muffin cups (about ¼ c. per muffin) and bake 20-25 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean.
Yield: 12 muffins
Alternate: Bake the batter in a greased standard loaf pan for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
The Wonderful Janet Siroto has held the Editor-in-Chief position at Time Inc.’s Family Life magazine, as well as senior editorial positions at Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Her writing work has appeared in New York, The New York Times, Vogue and many others.