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A Slice of Paradise


From Bon Appétit (March 2013)

From Bon Appétit (March 2013)

By Andrew McCarthy

It wasn’t the memory of trade winds rustling palm fronds that brought me back. Or of buttery sand between my toes while watching a fiery sun hang above the Pacific. What got me on a plane to travel halfway around the world was the recollection of dense, pungent, freshly baked banana bread.

For nearly a decade in the ’80s, I kept a home on Maui. I was living a hectic life in New York, but whenever I felt overrun by the world’s demands, I’d escape there. Maui was my haven, and my small hut beside the beach my sanctuary. They were simpler days (although they didn’t feel simple at the time), and back then, Maui was a simpler, more local place. Those days are gone, but they live in details of memory. Maybe it’s the power of the whole comfort food thing, but there is no more potent Maui memory for me than the smell of warm, moist banana bread. Lately I’ve felt the need for that simplicity in my life again. So I’ve returned. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand, but I’m chasing a feeling, and something tells me it resides in a homemade loaf of one of Maui’s specialties.

I begin my search high on the slopes of Haleakala, the 10,000-foot volcano that dominates the island. The air is cool; the clouds hang. A jacaranda is flush with purple flowers. By the side of a two-lane track in the up-country community of Kula, there’s a plantationstyle shack with a green corrugatedmetal roof—Grandma’s Coffee House.

Maui native Al Franco opened Grandma’s in 1988. I’ve known Al for years, and we settle at one of the half-dozen tables, beneath the photo of his grandmother.

“Banana bread was born of necessity,” he tells me. “We had too many bananas, so we made bread. I use my grandmother’s recipe and bananas from my yard.” Al’s a heavily tattooed, outgoing host, greeting nearly everyone walking through the door with a playful jibe.

He’s always tinkering with the recipe. Several varieties are on offer today: Local strawberries give one hearty loaf a tart sweetness; the macadamia-andchocolate has a decadent flavor that makes it difficult to put down; and the banana-coconut is decidedly Hawaiian.

“I’d never say we’re the best.” Al leans close and grins. “But we’re unique.”

Back down at sea level, but far from the crashing surf, I make my way to Wailuku, the old commercial heart of Maui, now faded with a sunburnt, Wild West feel. The road struggles up toward the foothills of the West Maui Mountains to an anonymous storefront near the corner of Hinano Street. Inside, a simple glass case displays the day’s goods. Battered refrigerators housing tubs of margarine line one wall; metal racks selling noodles and hot sauce crowd another. A fan blows hot air from the corner. The charm of the Four Sisters Bakery is its functionality.

From the cluttered kitchen, Filipino native Arnold Magbual and his family produce up to 1,000 loaves of banana bread a week. The recipe is his father’s. “We don’t have any other outlets,” Arnold tells me. “Except the Chevron station down the street, they sell a few. But I shipped six loaves to Madison, Wisconsin, recently.”

“When I took over the place, I modified the bread,” he says. “I added a little baking powder to cut the bitterness, and sour cream, but that was too expensive, so we started using vanilla pudding.” He shrugs. “I think we’ve got it now.”

Indeed they do. The bread has a creamy richness that lingers.

But there’s a place far from town that sells what many consider the best banana bread on the island. I head east, along the famous road to Hana.

Past the Hawaiian hipster town of Paia, the road narrows, the coastline plunges, bamboo-covered hills climb high. Past waterfalls, over one-lane bridges, the road is pushed around like a piece of string. I pass roadside stands boasting the best banana bread on the island. I’ve tasted most of these over the years; I drive on. The Keanae Peninsula comes into view and a narrow lane dives down toward deep-blue water crashing over jagged lava. Locals have been making this drive to Aunty Sandy’s yellow shack for nearly 30 years.

“I’ve tried to get out of the business, but I just can’t,” Sandy laughs.

Her banana bread has a lightness in color, texture, and taste that no other on Maui can claim. There’s an elegance to the loaf that mirrors Sandy’s sophisticated temperament. “It’s the hand, isn’t it?” she explains. “We can cook from the same recipe, but it’s the love in the hand that stirs that makes the difference.”

This is as satisfying a piece of banana bread as I could hope to find. Yet a nagging voice inside tells me I’m looking for something more.

The road out to Hana is precarious, but the trip around the north coast to Kahakuloa is downright dangerous. Long after my car radio loses reception, I come around a bend and dip down to the sea toward a black sand beach.

The very local settlement of Kahakuloa is home to roughly a hundred Hawaiians. It has no shops or services—except for Julia’s, a small roadside stand nestled above a taro patch.

If Sandy’s bread is a bright sunny day, Julia’s is a sultry night. Dark in color and sticky-moist, it is spongy and dense.

I’ve been here a dozen times over the years and never met Julia—it seems it’s always one of her “nieces” who is working the stand. This day is no exception.

I take my still-warm loaf of bread and wander off. A half-dozen boys are jumping from the bridge down into the stream below. A small woman in a baseball cap is sitting silently on a nearby bench. I nibble my bread and nod a greeting. She nods back.

I approach the boys, and consider the drop. They challenge me to strip down and take the plunge.

“I’d love to, but I’ve just eaten nearly this entire loaf of banana bread.”

“Is that Auntie Julia’s?” one of the skinny boys asks.

“It is.”

“That’s her right there.” He points to the woman in the baseball cap.

Julia is guarded at first, but soon invites me to sit.

“It was an accident,” she tells me. “I was selling fruit and the bananas got too ripe. I had to do something. So I took a recipe out of a book and made it better.”

Perhaps it’s my long history of eating Julia’s bread through the years, but I feel like I know her. We chat about her home island of Molokai, and her grandchildren. She takes me to meet her daughter and nieces. We sit around a picnic table; more banana bread is eaten. The family dog comes by for a pat. Something in the simple ease of the conversation feels deeply familiar to me. I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long time. Eventually the sun drops, a few photos are snapped, and we hug our farewells. Walking back up beside the taro patch, past Julia’s now-deserted bread stand, I begin to laugh—I’m thinking about moving back.

Julia’s Best Banana Bread
8 servings This simple, moist banana bread can also be baked in three small (5¾x3¼”) loaf pans, which is how you’ll find them at Julia’s stand; cooking time will be 40–50 minutes. For the deepest flavor, use ripe bananas with lots of freckles.

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1½ tsp. baking soda
¾ tsp. kosher salt
3 large eggs
1½ cups sugar
1 cup mashed ripe bananas
(about 2 large)
¾ cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350°. Coat a 9x5x3″ loaf pan with nonstick spray. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk eggs, sugar, bananas, and oil in a large bowl until smooth. Add dry ingredients to banana mixture and stir just until combined. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top.

Bake until a tester inserted into the center of bread comes out clean, 60–70 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let bread cool in pan for 15 minutes. Run a knife around inside of pan to release the bread. Turn out onto rack and let cool completely.

Do Ahead: Banana bread can be made 3 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

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