Banana Tea Cake & Thoughts on Cooking Without Recipes

by Kelly on March 28, 2011

“How can I learn to cook without recipes?”  It’s a question that I get a lot once friends or colleagues find out that I have a food blog.  It’s clear that the recession has spurred a lot of home cooking and once people become comfortable with their repetoire of recipes they are often eager to go off the beaten path, be more creative, and start inventing things on their own.

And I can relate because when I first started cooking, I wondered the same thing.  I liked cooking from recipes and would make small substitutions and tweaks here and there, but being more inventive seemed daunting.  How would I know what went together?  Where would I get ideas?

Six years later, much in part to blogging, creating recipes seems more natural and at times, it’s a skill that I almost take for granted.  So how did I get from being beholden to the recipe to cooking more intuitively?  The biggest answer – no surprise here – is experience.  In those years I’ve made hundreds of recipes, many outside my comfort zone, and the fact of the matter is that the more you cook, the more you understand the science of cooking, how flavors work together, and what you yourself like to eat.

And while doing is the best teacher, reading helps to.  I have an almost out of control number of blog feeds in my Google Reader and a thorough collection of cookbooks and food magazines.  I love looking at how similar recipes can be approached differently and how this impacts the results.  I also recommend eating out, as if you needed an excuse already.  Menus provide a wealth of inspriation when it comes to flavor and technique.  Some of my favorite recipes like my Pineapple-Ginger Grilled Tofu with Edamame Salad and Pasta with Goat Cheese, Orange Confit, and Thyme were inspired by dishes I ate out.  I also highly recommend asking questions of the waitstaff when you find a dish you really like.  While some restaurants have secrets they won’t devulge, most are flattered and all too eager to share how they made something.

And my last trick, start with solid, trusted recipes that you can make your own.  The book Ratio is great for this and provides formulas for things like pancakes, fritters, quick bread, and cookie dough so you can take them and play.  But you can also just start with the recipes you already have and look for ways to experiment.

Chocolate Chip Banana Tea Bread-2

This Banana Tea Cake recipe is one of my favorites to play around with because it’s forgiving and holds almost endless possibilities.  It’s a bit hard to describe this bread.  It’s original cookbook description calls it a healthier version of Starbucks Banana Pound Cake, but in all honestly it doesn’t taste like pound cake to me at all, though it is still incredibly delicious.

Chocolate Chip Banana Tea Bread-4

It’s less moist, less crumbly, and more airy than your traditional banana bread making it perfect for transforming into luscious bread puddings or a sweet dessert panini.  (I’m thinking one or both of these is to come.)  I also especially love that straight out of the oven, the top is a little crunchy, providing the perfect foil to the soft and supple interior.  It’s great as written, but also the perfect base recipe to play with.  In the past I’ve substituted various flours for the all purpose flour, tried other fruit purees in place of banana, and topped it with a glaze.  I’m sure you could think of even more ways to make it your own and since it is a healthier banana bread, you don’t have to feel guilty about all the experimentation.  Of course if you prefer to stay true to the original.  That’s fine too.  It’s delicious so I certainly wouldn’t hold it against you.

Chocolate Chip Banana Tea Bread-3

Banana Tea Cake
Adapted from Fast Food Fix
Serves 8


-Cooking spray
-2 cups all purpose flour
-1 teaspoon sea salt
-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
-1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 3 medium bananas)
-1 cup sugar
-2 egg whites
-2/3 cup low fat vanilla yogurt
-2/3 cup mini chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a regular sized loaf pan (or 3 mini loaf pans) with cooking spray. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the flour baking soda, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the bananas, sugar, egg whites, and yogurt. Mix until thoroughly combined. Add the flour mixture and stir just until no flour is visible. Be careful not to overmix.  Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour into the reserved pans.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes (or 40 to 50 for mini loaf pans) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool the pan(s) on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove to the rack and cool completely. Cut into 8 slices. Serve warm or at room temperature. Wrap and refrigerate any leftovers for 3 days, or tightly wrap and freeze any leftovers in a freezer bag or freezer-safe container for 1 month.

What about you? Do you have any tips on how to cook without recipes?

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Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding
April 4, 2011 at 10:49 pm

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

celine March 29, 2011 at 11:04 am

what lovely pictures! the bread definitely looks airy, which makes me want to make a vegan version of it soon. I’ll keep you posted!
I’m with you on practice and experience being key in cooking and baking without recipes. and of course, reading up on a stormload of recipes to know what the approximate amounts should be to get proper results. I read Ratio and loved it!


Shannon March 29, 2011 at 11:54 am

sounds delightful! and i like your idea about using it in a bread pudding or the like 🙂
yes, it comes slowly, and with practice, but it’s fun to learn!!


Kelly March 29, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Celine – Thank you. I agree with you, the more recipes you read the more you learn. It’s also helpful because even if you decide you only want to follow recipes it makes it such that you can usually tell then a recipe won’t work out, just by reading. I love the phrase stormload by the way. So cute.

Shannon – I like the idea of using it in bread pudding too. It’s great because while I like tea cakes and quick breads I usually only want a slice or two, which leaves two choices – bring it in to work, or use it up in a creative way.


Sues March 29, 2011 at 10:43 pm

I’ve been trying to create more recipes lately, but since I’m often low on time, recipes are just soo much easier (and more of a sure thing). It’s definitely something I want to get better at though, and I’ve been meaning to read Ratio for a long time now!


Carolyn Jung March 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Ooh, what a nice twist on banana bread. This one definitely looks more “bread”-like than cake-like, which is a nice change of pace. And who can resist chocolate chips in anything? 😉


Mary March 30, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Your bread looks really wonderful. I am intrigued by the book Ratio and am going to try to get a copy of it. I hope you have a great day. Blessings…Mary


Cara March 30, 2011 at 9:39 pm

I don’t think my Starbucks (any of them near me) have banana poundcake, and I’d rather go straight to this version with yogurt. Your descriptions are always so tantalizing!


Elina (Russian Bites) April 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm

I’m still not 100% comfortable with making up too many of my own “recipes” (throwing things together is a different story) but I do agree with you that the more you cook, the more you know what will work and what will not (making subs, or tweaks upon tasting is common in my kitchen now). Eating out is another great source of inspiration for me as well. I actually found that I’m much more critical when tasting dishes now that I cook, because I feel like I know what things are missing or how they can really be improved upon (and if I know that, professional chefs should too 😉 )


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