Oh Milk & Honey, How I Miss You...

When I moved to Chicago in 2004, I scored a pretty awesome job. A new hip Marriott hotel just off Michigan Ave. hired me as their Executive Assistant. I got all the hotel employee perks like free rooms all over the world, free Starbucks coffees, and parties in the Hancock building, but none of the hotel employee crappy hours like nights, weekends, and holidays. I got to dress-up everyday and take the train to work often walking through Nordstrom on my way to and from, it felt pretty glamorous.

However, after a promotion to management almost a year later, I had had enough. I was working often 50 hour weeks on a dreadful salary (dreadful for Chicago, dreadful for Indiana, dreadful for just about anywhere) and trying to manage my full time school on the side. After coming home night after night crying to Jeff, he looked at me and said - why don't you just quit? So I did. Now, any other time in my life that wouldn't have been a catastrophe. Ever since I was 15 I've juggled at least 2 jobs at once. Quitting one was never a big deal, I always had the other. But this resignation would have left me unemployed which was a scary scenario for me.

I think I went 7 days without employment. After eating breakfast at a neighborhood cafe, Milk & Honey, I asked the manager about a help wanted sign in the window, filled out an application, and was hired on the spot. Now, Milk & Honey is pretty special. The next time you go to Chicago, find them and go there for breakfast (and order French Toast) and then again for lunch (and order the Ham Sandwich). Their menu is simple, inexpensive but sophisticated and delectable, and if I was working that day, you'd be munching to Radiohead, the Shins and Camera Obscura.

The work was hard. Very hard. A complete 180 from the hotel though. I wore my crap clothes and lawn-mowing shoes to work. You were on your feet for often 9 hours straight with a wee 15 minute break while you inhaled your delicious free lunch of your choice. But there was just something about working there that I will always miss. I'm not sure but it's probably a combination of the totally rockin' girls I worked with, the fact that I could blast whatever music I wanted to in the cafe, the fact that I learned how to barista, or maybe it's that I made tons of cash and met a lot of really neat and notable neighborhood people who were regulars (like Liam from Plush and the piano player in Wilco).

Anyway, one of the better things about Milk & Honey is their bakery selection. Everyday there were homemade muffins and scones with interesting combinations like blueberry almond and peach cranberry, as well as cookies, cupcakes, tarts, brownies and my all-time favorite - banana bread. Now, I love bananas but I don't really like banana flavored things. I'll eat the banana Runts outta the box, but don't you dare make me eat a banana pancake. However, Milk & Honey's banana bread made all my dreams come true with each bite. I would die for the recipe. I've never asked for fearing straight out laugh-in-my-face rejection. My mom makes a pretty good banana bread, but it's just not the same as M&H's (sorry mom). I stumbled across this recipe on Food Network this past summer after I was sick of staring at rotting bananas on my counter-top. I made some changes and what I came up with is pretty darn close (but still no cigar) to M&H's. I've made this now several times and it is now my go-to recipe for banana bread. Again, simple ingredients...enjoy!

Banana Walnut Bread

1 cup sugar
8 Tbsp. butter softened
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 ripe bananas
1 Tbsp. milk
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups of flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup (8 oz.) chopped walnuts

Start by preheating the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a loaf pan. Here's a trick that you may not know about. Use the butter wrapper to butter the pan.

Next, in the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, whisk or sift together the flour, baking soda and powder, and the salt. In another bowl, mash the bananas to your desired texture. I hate banana lumps so I pretty much liquified them. You can mash using a fork, but I found this step goes by so much faster with a potato masher. Also, you want to be sure you're using ripe bananas. Some say the browner the better, but I personally have an affliction against rotting fruit, so I just use spotty ones and it works out just fine.

Stir in the milk and the cinnamon to the bananas and set aside. Add the eggs one at a time to the butter mixture. My mom always taught me to crack your eggs in a separate bowl and not directly into your mixture, just incase one's rotten so you won't ruin all your other ingredients. Then add the vanilla. Next add the banana mixture to the mixing bowl and blend until completely incorporated. Finally, in 2 batches with the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients and mix just until the flour disappears. I've been told time and time again from Giada, Ina and the likes that if you over mix, your bread will be "tough", whatever that means. So don't over mix. Finally add the chopped walnuts and mix for just a few seconds.

Pour the batter into the buttered loaf pan. I sprinkle coarse sugar on top of the batter to sweeten up the "crust". Bake for 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. This is important: leave the bread to cool in the loaf pan for 10-20 minutes before removing it to cool completely on a wire rack. I got impatient the first time I made this and waited just about 5 minutes before popping it out of the pan and I got crumbly broken pieces - still delicious though! I store my loaf in a gallon size ziplock bag and keep for a maximum of 3 days.

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