Bananas have a rough go of it here in the United States. Even the most basic grocery store has at least 4 or 5 varieties of apples. Carrots come in a variety of colors and sizes and even the pear section continues to expand. Bananas however remain the same: one kind, many bunches, green or yellow.
Bananas have a better go of it in other countries. I taught English as a Second Language in Ecuador after college. I lived on the coast in a town called Manta and Hotel Oro Verde (the Green Gold Hotel) in honor of bananas being one of the country’s largest exports was the nicest hotel. With many varieties of bananas, they take them seriously there and it was in Ecuador that I first tried plantains.
Despite being a bit larger, plantains look like regular bananas. Try to peel one however and you’ll quickly find that despite visual similarities, plantains are a different beast. Unripe plantains are green with a thick outer peel that must be cut open with a paring knife. Once you’ve sliced open the peel, it takes a little elbow grease to peel it away from the sticky, firm flesh. Unripe plantains benefit from cooking and my favorite preparation is to slice them extremely thin and fry them to make crisp chip-like snacks called chifles. Ecuadorians crumble chifles atop ceviche for a nice bit of crunch although they also eat them plain or with a mayonnaise-based dip.
Ripe plantains, or maduros, are a mottled black and yellow. They look like bananas that are ready for banana bread, but when you remove the peel they are actually still quite firm. Unlike regular bananas, plantains don’t oxide and turn brown so you can peel and cut them in advance. Maduros, which are much sweeter than unripe plantains, also benefit from cooking and are commonly fried in butter or oil as a sweet side or a simple dessert in Latin American countries.
Friends came over for a low-key Mexican inspired meal last night that ended with fried maduros that were then covered with a rum syrup and served with crema. The dessert was a hit, but I went overboard on my plantain purchase and had several maduros that I needed to use up.
I planned to fry them again in butter or even roast them in the oven, but then it occurred to me that maduros’ firm texture and the way they caramelize beautifully would make them the perfect choice for an upside down cake.
Instead of a regular cake batter, I decided to put bananas front and center by making the cake itself out of my favorite banana bread recipe. I substituted coconut extract for the vanilla extract and threw in some sweetened coconut flakes to give the cake a taste of the tropics. Into the oven it went as I crossed my fingers that reality would be as delicious as my vision.
It was. The maduros, cooked in brown sugar and butter, are the perfect softness and not to sweet despite their decadent appearance. The coconut flavoring and flakes don’t overwhelm, but still manage to transport you to a warmer climes. And, if you are nuts for bananas, there is plenty to love. Now if only my local grocery store started to carry a few more varieties of green gold…
Upside Down Banana Cake with Maduros – Printer Friendly Recipe
The next time I make this cake I’ll add one cup of chopped pecans as I think that they would make a fabulous addition. If using chopped nuts, stir them in with the flaked coconut.
You can find ripe and unripe plantains at most international grocery stores.
For the caramelized maduros:
2 large ripe (maduro) plantains (the blacker the plantain the better)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
For the banana cake:
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 very ripe bananas, peeled and smashed
2 large eggs, beaten
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon coconut flavoring
½ cup sweetened flaked coconut
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Use a paring knife to cut open the peel of the ripe plantain. Peel the plantain and slice it, on the diagonal, into ¼-inch thick slices. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. Once melted stir in the brown sugar and cook, stirring continuously, until the sugar dissolves. It is better to cook the brown sugar mixture for too little then too long. If cooked too long, the mixture forms sticky strands that won’t work as well. Remove the skillet from the heat and cover the bottom with the plantain slices. Set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Add the smashed banana and beaten egg and beat until just combined. Add the flour, soda, and salt and continue beating on medium speed until just combined. Stir in the coconut flavoring and sweetened flaked coconut.
Spoon the mixture over the maduros in the brown sugar mixture and use a spatula to smooth the batter. Put the cast iron skillet in the oven on the middle rack and bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes.
Place a large platter or cutting board over the cast iron skillet and using potholders and a firm grip, invert the cake. Carefully lift the cast iron skillet off the cake. If maduros stick to the bottom of the pan, simply peel them off and place them on the cake. Serve the cake immediately on its own or with a scoop of vanilla or dulce de leche ice cream.