Try Not to Kill Anyone Banana Muffins

The weekend before last I nearly killed Niece Two. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but at the time I didn’t know that I’d be joking about it a week later. It started innocently enough. She was chatting away, as most shockingly verbal three and a half year olds are wont to do, and exclaimed, apropos of nothing—non-sequiturs being another trait of the shockingly verbal three and a half year old—how exciting it was to watch my brother-in-law use a nutcracker on a walnut. “It has a ginormous shell and then he cracks it and inside is a really, really big nut!”
When I was a kid my grandparents always had a large, shallow bowl on their coffee table filled with dusty walnuts and almonds still in their shells. A metal cracker rested on top of the nuts for when my grandfather was in a nutty mood. He’d make a big show out of cracking the walnuts, and thinking they’d be as yummy as peanuts, I always accepted his shelled offering. Somehow I had nut amnesia and would forget how unlike a yummy peanut the walnut was, pop one in my mouth and regret it as soon as the roof of my mouth invariably began to itch.

With this memory in mind I asked Niece Two, “Do you eat the nuts Daddy cracks?”

“Yes! I love them!” I was skeptical.

“Really? You’re sure you eat walnuts?”

“Yes! I’m super positive.” Big mistake. Never believe a three and a half year old.

Earlier in the day my father had been commanding everyone who walked through the kitchen to eat one of the bananas that were rapidly passing their prime. I refused to comply because one, I am a woman of a certain age and don’t eat something because my father tells me to, and two, I am really not a banana fan. I like my fresh fruit to quench my thirst, not induce it. But I do like the flavor of banana and thought I would donate the two I was told to eat to a baking project with the nieces.
Involving them in the decision process is always a negotiation. Niece One thought muffins would be a good idea and Niece Two lobbied for cupcakes, despite the fact that she has rejected every little cake I have ever made for her. Knowing Niece One is an older sister in the model of her aunt (me), I just sat back and watched as she skillfully convinced her little sister that really, muffins and cupcakes are the same thing. (For all of you who don’t realize that a blueberry muffin is basically a vanilla cupcake with a handful of berries thrown in, she is right.) Niece Two was swayed and we moved on to assembling our supplies, including the half cup of walnuts I’d found in my mother’s freezer.The great thing about the recipe I found was that the ingredients and the labor were easily divisible by two. Each girl got a banana to smush, an egg to crack, two big splashes of wet ingredients, two cups of flour to pour, etc. All was going swimmingly and their lessons in sharing were put into practice beautifully. The last step involved each niece grabbing a handful of the walnuts I had pre-chopped and tossing it into the big bowl of batter. I handled making sure everything was mixed completely and then ran inside to get an ice cream scoop to portion out each muffin.
We were almost done filling the pans when I noticed a rash on Niece Two’s right hand. Now normally this wouldn’t be a big deal. She is actually a pretty rash-prone girl and my sister is constantly rubbing her with various doctor recommended creams after her bath. But this wasn’t an ordinary gathering of a few red splotches. This thing was on the move. I literally watched as red welts crept up her arm, across her shoulder, up her neck and around her tiny face, resting for good on her forehead.
“OH MY GOD!” I screamed, forgetting the first rule of taking care of children—never get hysterical if they aren’t.

“What? What?” she said, her eyes searching mine for reassurance I was unable to give.

That’s when my sister swooped in, calmly but quickly scooped up her daughter and headed for the medicine cabinet.

At that moment Niece One, always the expert, shook her head and delivered her verdict, “It was the walnuts.”
“But she only touched a few!” I said defensively, feeling so guilty and wondering what my sister was doing in the bathroom.

“Yeah, she ate some batter too. I saw her.” They must have been licking their fingers when I went inside to get the scoop. Another lesson learned. Never leave children unattended with a bowl of sweet, uncooked anything.
My sister returned with poor, little Splotch-o who had just been dosed up with Benadryl and seemed entirely cheerful. And then the most amazing thing happened. As quickly as the tide of rash had overcome her, it receded. It really just disappeared as if it had never been there. To say I was relieved is almost making a mockery of just how anxious I had been. I was elated and realized I exhaled for the first time in a half hour. And then another amazing thing happened: the major side effect of the Benadryl hit Niece Two almost as hard as the rash. One minute she was laughing and eating her grilled cheese. The next her head hung from her neck and her eyes practically rolled to the back of her head like a junkie. The girl who stopped napping a year ago slept for two hours.
When all was said and done I didn’t even want to look at these muffins. But I did and Niece One and I ate them. And as hard as they were to enjoy without the newly allergic co-chef, they were delicious, moist without being gummy (a pitfall of many a banana quick bread), sweet without being cloying and just banana-y enough. When the weekend was over I packed them up in Ziploc bags, excited to know that they’d be waiting for me on my next visit. Except they won’t be. A few days later Irene caused a power outage that my parents lived with until the Wednesday after the storm. I’m very sorry for that. And I’m also very sorry for the overwhelming loss of a freezer full of my baked goods. Along with the banana muffins we’ll have to toss half a pound cake, a batch of coffee blond brownies, and a bag full of pre-scooped cookie dough. Now I need to focus on rebuilding our sweet supply. This time with no walnuts.
Try Not to Kill Anyone Banana Muffins
from Diana Rattray,
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1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 large bananas, ripe, mashed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional!!)

Line 18 muffin cups with paper liners.

Cream butter and sugar with an electric hand-held mixer until light and fluffy.
Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add bananas and vanilla and beat until smooth.
Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture, alternating with the sour milk or buttermilk. Stir just until dry ingredients are moistened; gently stir in the optional chopped nuts.
Spoon banana muffin batter into liners, filling about 2/3 full. Bake at 400° for about 15 to 18 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned. Cool banana muffins in pan on rack for a few minutes; turn banana muffins out onto rack to cool longer. Serve banana muffins warm.
Makes 18 muffins.

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