Thursday, October 13, 2011

Banana Peanut Butter Cupcakes: It Started with Mushy Bananas

Banana & Peanut Butter Cupcake a la Elvis

It was the summer of 2002.  I had been accepted to graduate school at UT in Austin, and the impending transition, not only to a new school, but to a new state, was both exhilarating and anxiety-ridden.  It was a big risk I was taking, moving somewhere where I didn't know a soul.  But all the same, I was proud of myself for taking that next step towards independence and breaking away from the nest.  

Upon the request of my parents, I had agreed to move back home for two months before shipping off.  Of course, the intention was for me to save money and spend some quality time with my family and relax before returning to the life of late night cramming, lecture hall naps, and running after the bus.  But as we all know, good intentions don't always produce the results we'd hoped for.  I'm a busybody by nature, so idle time has always seemed far from ideal to me, and the work I was putting into "relaxing" was driving me crazy.

But sometimes when your path is obstructed, instead of preventing you from reaching your goal, it's actually guiding you towards a new one.

During the day my parents and brother would go to work, leaving my sister, grandmother, and our dogs at home.  My sister loves to bake, and every day she would be coming up with new creations, some she would share with us and some she would "reserve" for the dogs and the squirrels.  And while my initial instinct upon returning home was to lock myself in my room and "plug in" to my computer, I eventually found my way out and began to spend more time in the kitchen.  My job right before moving back home was at a Chinese bakery, so the smell of pastries and bread was comforting and gave me a sense of continuity.  And it also peaked my curiosity, as I had always wondered about baking, but had never been brave enough to try.  But in the end, it was my sister's unflinching willingness to make mistakes that finally inspired me to make my first attempt.

2 of my sister's creations: A berry & nut bread and a passionfruit-mango layer cake

I remember it was a Saturday afternoon and we were unpacking groceries.  Shifting things around in our overflowing refrigerators was not unlike Tetris, and sometimes we would find things we didn't know we had.  As you can imagine, that's a situation that can be either very good or very bad.  On this day, it was a little of both.  I found a bunch of overripe bananas, brown-skinned and verging on mushy.  My Mom wanted to throw them out, but my sister stopped her and said she would make banana bread.  And for whatever reason, I told my sister that I would make it.  So my mom found a recipe that she had clipped out of a magazine for Kona Inn Banana Bread, and even though we didn't have all the ingredients that it called for, my sister was quick to offer suggestions on substitutions and adjustments.

If these bananas could talk, they'd say, "make me into banana bread already"

I was nervous all the way from measuring the ingredients to putting it in the oven, unsure of how it would turn out.  But upon smelling it and then finally tasting it, I was giddy with excitement.  I had actually baked something delicious.

In the years to follow while I was in grad school, I rarely baked.  But when I did, it was almost always good ol' banana bread.  So in 2007, the year I finished grad school and also began transitioning to a gluten-free diet, it became a project of mine to make that delicious banana bread again but have it fit within my new lifestyle.  And maybe there's something about mushy bananas and me, but from my very first attempt, it turned out great.  And over the last four years, I've continued to tweak and modify the recipe as I've become aware of different ingredients and different techniques.

This is the latest adaptation.

Gluten-Free/Vegan Banana Peanut Butter Cupcakes
(GF, DF, V, rSF, SF)

1 1/2-2 c mashed bananas (~3-4 medium bananas)
1/3 c peanut butter, softened
1/3 c apple sauce
1/4 c oil or melted vegan butter
1/2-1 c unrefined sugar
1 tablespoon ground flax
1 teaspoon GF vanilla extract
1 c GF AP flour
1 c coarsely ground toasted almonds
1 c coarsely ground toasted peanuts
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  Mash bananas in a large bowl.  Add all wet ingredients, sugar, peanut butter, and ground flax.  Mix to incorporate.  If there are still some small chunks of banana, that is an awesome problem to have. And the range of sugar amount is just there to accommodate preferences in sweetness.  I used 1/2 cup of equal parts coconut palm sugar and raw coconut crystals and it was just sweet enough for me.
3.  In a separate bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients.  I used Bob's Red Mill gluten-free all purpose flour and I ground the nuts and then toasted them myself.
4.  Gradually fold the banana and peanut butter mixture into the dry ingredients.
5.  Portion the batter into your cupcake liners until they are 1/2 full.
6.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until they are dark golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
7.  Makes 12-16 cupcakes.

Not just for potatoes

Ground nuts toasted, golden, and aromatic

A bonus to vegan baking is that you can taste it before you cook it

Cooled and ready to share

You can easily use this recipe to make larger cakes, mini cake-bites, loaves, or layer cakes.  The last one is definitely on my to-do baking list.  In the pictures at the top and bottom of the post I used a peanut butter buttercream lightly sweetened with agave, garnished with some crispy bacon and toasted peanuts [cue "Jailhouse Rock].  Personally, I prefer the cupcakes just as they are, but for those who find it difficult to conceive of a cupcake without frosting, I took those pictures just for you.

What I like best about this recipe is the texture.  Either adding or substituting ground nuts into gluten-free baked goods is a great way to get that crumb-like texture that can be difficult to achieve.  And you'd think that using ground peanuts in addition to peanut butter would make this cake overly nutty, but it isn't.  You can certainly detect the peanut butter, especially on the finish, but it's present only to the point that it supports the banana flavor without competing with it.

One of the best compliments I received about this cake was that it didn't taste gluten-free, and this was coming from two women who know their pastries.  That really made my day.  Another instance that made me grin was the time I brought it to the theatre for a friend's birthday, and after explaining all the things it didn't have, someone laughed that I'd probably made it flavor-free, too.   That person came back for seconds.

Beautiful texture

Cake-bites I made for my birthday

I'd like to take this opportunity to send a huge "Thank You" to my sister, Jessica, for guiding and encouraging me on my baking journey and allowing her generous spirit to rub off a bit.  She taught me to take risks, and to always believe in the process, regardless of the result.  And more than just influencing my approach to baking, it has inspired my approach to living and how I define "success."

At the end of the day, my goal is to create smiles, memories, and opportunities to share.  And if I happen to come up with some fabulous recipes along the way, that's just icing (and perhaps, bacon) on the cake.


  1. Hugs! Experimenting in the kitchen is a lot of fun and especially exciting when you end up creating something incredible. Banana Bread is definitely a staple and one of the best sellers at the 'Jesscafé.' I'm glad that I was able to help you start baking. I remember how filled with trepidation you used to be when it came to measuring out everything. You've come a long way =) The cupcakes look amazing. I Read the whole entry aloud to Dad and he found the piece of Bacon on the cupcake amusing. Yum, yum, yum, I'm happy that I don't have nut allergies =) Even if you do have peanut allergies; as long as a person isn't also allergic to soy; then they could use a really good quality soynut butter. Some of the brands out there; taste so close to peanutbutter. Good job on the cupcakes! Hugs, Mahal Kita Kuya =)

  2. Thanks for the love, Jess! Measurements are still an area of concern for me, but I'm learning to trust myself more.

    And I'm really glad that you were able to share the post with Dad. I'll definitely make it for you, Mom, and Dad when you come visit in December. And of course, no bacon on yours. :)

  3. I think your blog is looking better and better! Can't wait to try this recipe with Scout.
    Pics look amazing, like always!!!

  4. Thank you so much, Maraya! When editing and posting photos, I often think, "What would Maraya do?" So it goes without saying that your feedback means a *lot* to me.

    Looking forward to hearing if/how Scout likes them. :)


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