- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

Ah, the things we take for granted. I know this is hard to picture, but bananas were unknown in the United States until about the time of the Civil War, when a few bunches made their way north by boat to New Orleans. Each fruit was wrapped in foil like a precious object, and each was worth a dollar, not an inconsequential sum in those days.

Bananas became known to the public at the Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, the same event that introduced Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Because bananas were perishable, better packing and transportation methods had to be worked out before trade could become viable.

Bananas now are so common and plentiful that we take them for granted, but they are a good source of fiber, potassium and vitamin C. Mostly, bananas are an eating fruit — and a convenient one. However, I often find myself buying more than I have time to eat, and I regularly end up looking for interesting ways to incorporate the extras into recipes beyond banana bread.

If that is also the case with you, here is a great way to employ that surplus: Make a light bread pudding that tastes good at any temperature and in many contexts, including breakfast, dessert, an after-school treat or high tea. This is a true comfort food in late winter, when other fresh fruit is a distant memory.

For those in the market for a novel museum, the Washington Banana Museum in Auburn, Wash., showcases more than 4,000 items, a melange of artifacts, folk art and other cultural oddities devoted to bananas. Assembled by a longtime scholar of banana consciousness, this place features a compendium of whimsical and serious representations of the No. 1-selling fruit in the United States. Take the virtual tour at www.bananamuseum.com.

What degree of ripeness is right for the following banana bread pudding recipe? Usually, overripe bananas are preferable for baking. But in this case, you will have the best results if you simply use bananas that are eating ripe, whatever that means to you.

To me, it means past green but still firm, with no dark spots.

For best results, use a country-style bread with a crisp crust and an airy, chewy interior, what’s known in bread-speak as a “high crust-to-crumb ratio.” These breads are often called sweet batards or ciabattas. If you can’t find any, use stale French or Italian bread.

Don’t skip the step in this recipe that calls for garnishing with a wedge of lime. Fresh lime juice squeezed onto each serving gives it a sparkle that truly sets it apart.

Banana bread pudding

Nonstick cooking spray for the pan

3 cups bread cubes (½-inch pieces)

3 medium-size ripe bananas

4 large eggs

2 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon salt

½ cup packed brown sugar

1½ teaspoons vanilla

1/8 teaspoon almond extract

Pinch nutmeg

1 to 2 tablespoons cold butter, in thin slices, optional

Lime wedges

Sour cream, yogurt or creme fraiche, optional

Lightly spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. Spread bread cubes in pan.

Peel bananas, cut them into slices, and gently tuck them among pieces of bread. Shake the pan to distribute everything somewhat evenly.

Combine eggs, milk, salt, sugar, vanilla, almond extract and nutmeg in a blender or food processor, and whip until smooth.

Pour liquid mixture over bread, and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Use your finger or a spoon to poke the bread into the liquid until all the pieces are soaked. Top with slices of butter, if desired.

Bake in center of preheated 350-degree oven (325 degrees for a glass pan) for 35 to 40 minutes or until custard is almost set. (It’s OK if it is still slightly wet on top. It will continue to cook from its own heat for a few minutes after it comes out of the oven.) Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Add a lime wedge to squeeze over, along with a dab of yogurt, sour cream or creme fraiche on top of each serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Mollie Katzen is author of “The Moosewood Cookbook.”

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