Broyles: Baker combines love of sweets, nutrition in signature banana bread

Hannah Casparian’s cherry red KitchenAid mixer never leaves her kitchen counter.

In the 29-year-old’s funky East Austin bungalow, the mixer shines like a well-kept hot rod and fits in nicely with the vintage aesthetic of her home, including the old, colorful signs that hang on her brightly colored walls.

Not a week goes by that Casparian, a Culinary Institute of America-trained baker and a registered dietitian who embraces the contradictions of her professions, doesn’t use that mixer.

She’s a baker who balances her sweet tooth and her conscience with healthy baked goods like her famous Hannah Banana Bread.

It all started when she was a kid and started learning how to cook from her grandmother on Long Island. By 6, she was baking dinner rolls, and at 8, she dressed up as a baker for Halloween.

Her dad is a pastor for the Episcopal church, a job that took their family to Florence, Italy, for Casparian’s middle and high school years.

To cope with her homesickness and boredom with Italian desserts, Casparian started baking in the rector house kitchen and selling the cookies, pies and cakes to friends, fellow expats and curious Italians.

“My friends (in the U.S.) shipped me vanilla,” she says.

Living abroad gave her an appreciation for her American roots and American desserts, and she still talks about those chocolate chip cookies in Italy with a gleam in her eye.

Not long after she moved back to the U.S. in 2001, she enrolled in the pastry program at the CIA in Hyde Park, then followed that with a degree in nutrition at Long Island University. Eventually, she found her way to Austin, where she works as a corporate chef at a downtown tech company.

Casparian says she loves her job now, especially the daytime hours and creative flexibility, but her dream has always been to open her own bakery.

Until then, she has weekends to herself, and earlier this year, she invited me over to bake her namesake bread.

It’s a simple formula that she’s tweaked down to its most important parts over the years.

A health nut and a baker, Casparian tries to make hers as healthy as possible by adding nutrient-packed ingredients such as flax, spelt flour and bran.

“If you’re going to eat cake in the morning, you might as well make it as healthy as possible,” she says as she tears the stems off the black bananas and squeezes the mushy insides out like a sausage from its casing.

The riper the bananas, the less sugar she has to use to sweeten the bread. “The blacker and gooier, the better,” she says, not once scrunching her nose at the squishy fruit plopping in the bowl.

Casparian, who loves fiber so much that she has the molecular structure of dietary fiber tattooed on her shoulder, prefers to use all whole wheat flour and brown sugar, but you could swap white flour and white sugar in this recipe if absolutely need be. (Wheat flour absorbs more water that white, so you’ll have to go easy on the liquid — in the bananas and eggs — to compensate.)

All those batches of dense banana bread have given her the ability to, subconsciously or not, adjust depending on how much moisture is in the bananas or how big the eggs. She’s also the kind of cook who weighs flours but refuses, on principle, to measure vanilla or use unsalted butter.

In general, Casparian says that when in doubt and making quick breads, cooks should cut back on the total number of eggs. “Too many eggs will cause the quick bread to rise too much and fall onto itself. It’s better to be a little on the dry side.”

To mix the wet and dry ingredients, Casparian uses the paddle on her stand-up mixer. “I’d rather mix this with a wooden spoon than a hand-held beater,” she says. “Too much air and whipping screws up the gluten.”

Another of Casparian’s tricks is to coat the loaf pan with butter or cooking spray and then shake poppy or sesame seeds to cover the sides and bottom of the pan. The seeds help the loaf come out of the pan more easily, and they toast ever so slightly in the oven.

What accouterments you add to the basic batter are up to you. Chocolate chips, shredded coconut and raisins all add an element of surprise, and though Casparian doesn’t dig nuts in her bread, chopped nuts of any kind can add both texture and protein.

The bread can be as healthy as you want to make it, but no matter what you put in the batter, if you want to really bake like a professional, clean up behind yourself as you cook, she says.

“Otherwise, it’s just chaos in the kitchen.”

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