When you’re dreaming of cake but short on time, the answer is quick bread. Leavened with baking powder or baking soda, these easily assembled and quick-to-rise batters range from sweet to savory, dense to crumbly. Baked in loaf pans, they can be served—with or without frosting—in familiar, homey slices that are as perfect with a cup of afternoon tea as they are toasted and slathered with butter for breakfast.
Most quick breads are made from the same basic ingredients: flour, leavening, eggs, fat and liquid. To this simple formula, you can add all sorts of flavorings—fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, spices, chocolate, cheese… The type of bread produced varies based on this, of course, but also on how you mix it and how much liquid the batter contains. (The more liquid, the closer you get to pancake territory.) Vary the flours, as well, to delicious effect; nut flours and different grains produce distinct textures and flavors.
Some of my favorite quick breads are the ones that pack in solid nutrition, whether that’s from pureed pumpkin or shredded zucchini, plus all kinds of healthy add-ins. On the savory side, try a cornmeal loaf with buttermilk, jalapeño and sharp cheddar—perfect with chili—or an irresistible combination of goat cheese, salty black olives and bacon. While these don’t have the loft or airy crumb of a yeast-leavened bread, they are quite satisfying nonetheless.
Banana bread is a classic example of a quick bread that welcomes everything from crystallized ginger to pumpkin seeds. In fact, I made a wonderful banana bread recently that was dark from cocoa powder and rich with bittersweet chocolate chunks and pecans. When I have lots of marmalade in the house, I make a loaf with earthy buckwheat flour, rosemary and bitter orange marmalade that is perfect with a cup of strong tea.
As far as frosting goes, some may argue this is gilding the lily, but others demand it. If you want a fancier presentation or your loaf is truly standing in for a cake, you might like a topping of some kind. I prefer a cream cheese frosting to buttercream, but a drippy glaze looks beautiful and I’ve even baked some loaves with a sprinkling of turbinado sugar on top for a glistening crunch.
Have you discovered Milk Street Kitchen, the new magazine and content site from Christopher Kimball? He has left Cook’s Illustrated for this new venture, focusing on a global approach to cooking that is more about “layers of flavor, about contrast, about combining ingredients in new ways.” I really like listening to its podcast and recently heard them talking about a pistachio loaf cake, which I adapted with walnuts. You stir all the ingredients together in one bowl and, while it bakes, make a simple glaze with powdered sugar, yogurt and orange juice that gets drizzled on top. With just 15 minutes of effort, you’ve got cake from scratch!
Walnut-Cardamom Tea Cake
Adapted from Milk Street Kitchen
Makes 1 9-inch loaf
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. grated orange zest
¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp. fresh orange juice
1 1/3 cups chopped walnuts, toasted and cooled
1 cup all-purpose flour (gluten-free mix is fine)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. plus ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tsp. kosher salt
4 large eggs
½ cups plus 2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
¼ cup olive oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ cup powdered sugar
Heat the oven to 325ºF with a rack in the middle position. Lightly coat a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with oil and flour.
In a food processor, combine the white sugar and orange zest; process until the sugar is damp and fragrant, 5 to 10 seconds. Transfer to a large bowl.
Add the walnuts to the processor and pulse until coarse, 8-10 pulses. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the nuts for topping. Add the flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt to the processor with the nuts. Process until the nuts are finely ground, about 45 seconds.
To the sugar mixture, whisk in the eggs, ½ cup of yogurt, the oil, ¼ cup orange juice and vanilla. Add the nut-flour mixture and fold until mixed.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake until golden brown, firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted at the center comes out with moist crumbs, 50 to 55 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
Remove from pan and let cool completely, about 2 hours.
In a bowl, whisk the remaining yogurt with the powdered sugar, remaining 1 tablespoon orange juice and ¼ teaspoon cardamom until thick and smooth. Spread over the cake. Sprinkle with the reserved nuts. Let set for 10 minutes before serving.
[Laura Silverman and Jude Waterston will be alternating writers for our food columns, printed the fourth week of every month.]