Location: Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
Recipe: Upside-Down Banana Caramel Cake
I consider myself a fairly intrepid traveller. I’ve bicycled alone in Portugal along the Santiago de Compostela during November’s rainy season; survived a harrowing, three-hour cab ride from Cairo to Port Said, Egypt, after getting lost in that chaotic city and missing the bus back to a waiting cruise ship; and slept in a tent wearing earplugs with a pillow atop my head trying to get a decent night’s sleep while camping among 100,000 revellers at the Roskilde Music Festival in Denmark.
Yet for reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been scared to visit Brazil. I’m not proud of this fact but, there it is, I’ve confessed.
Where and how did this fear of Brazil originate? I’ve no idea. Brazil is home to stunning beaches, the sexually exuberant festival of Carnival, and the setting of one of my favorite films: the hauntingly beautiful Black Orpheus, the 1959 film that transports the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to Rio’s favelas.
But when I thought about vacationing in Brazil, I imagined street urchins begging for money and nefarious thieves snatching a purse from my shoulders. Mind you no one had ever reported this actually happening to them, these thoughts were simply fears carried in my head.
And then, one day, a Brazilian couchsurfer arrived at my doorstep from Salvador in Bahia, Brazil: Luana. She was visiting New York by way of East Lansing, Michigan, where she was attending Michigan State University studying veterinary surgical oncology. She treats animals suffering from cancer. I mean, how much nicer can a person be? Oh, and did I mention, she’s all of 25?
Dressed in black and wearing spiky heels on her five-foot frame (bumping her up to 5’3″ or 5’4″), and pulling behind her a large, black suitcase nearly as big as her, Luana had the disarming confidence of an Avon saleswoman on steroids. When I then sheepishly revealed my Brazilian neurosis to her, she dashed to my computer, whereupon she inserted a stealth flash drive she’d magically been carrying to reveal in all its glory a 48-page PowerPoint about the wonders of Brazil. Before my eyes, the woman morphed from a staid veterinarian into a high-powered, one-woman travel agency. Seriously, she may have been an undercover travel industry operative.
Stunned into submission, I soon learned from Luana’s presentation that Brazil is the largest country in South America; the world’s fifth largest country in the world, both by geographical area, and by population, with over 192 million people; the largest lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) country in the world; and has a coastline of 7,491 km (4,655 mi).
And then there were her photos:
Wide expanses of crystal, blue waters…
Exotic foods I’d never tasted…
And the wonderfully eerie Elevator Lacerda, a magical lift that transports passive visitors from one level of Bahia to the next…
By the time she finished, I was searching desperately for my cellphone to dial American Airlines to book a ticket. Without question, I’m visiting Brazil. Maybe not this year, but definitely next. Then again, as Luana reminded me, the Olympics will be in Rio in 2016. Could a second trip already be in order?
Luana isn’t only a woman who treats animals stricken with cancer or Brazil’s #1 Secret Travel Agent. She also likes to cook. Here’s the banana caramel cake she taught me, sealing the deal that a trip to this South American country was definitely in my not-so-distant future.
Recipe: Upside-down banana caramel cake
Adapted from the website Aquina Cozinha
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 1/2 cups sugar (1 1/2 cups for caramel, 1 cup for cake batter)
1 cup milk
1 cup canola oil
3 eggs, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Slice bananas into 1/2″ rounds. Sprinkle with cinnamon and squeeze a lemon over top. Set aside in refrigerator.
To make caramel:
1. Place 1 1/2 cups sugar in a medium, heavy-duty pot or saucepan on top of stove over medium heat.
2. Allow to soften, slowly, without stirring, until it begins to liquefy at edges. The sugar will be extremely hot, so use oven mitts and work with caution.
3. As sugar softens and caramelizes, use a heat-resistant spatula to gently pull the sugar toward the center of the pan. You want to be sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom or burn in any section. The sugar will be a bit clumpy at first, but don’t stir excessively, just allow it to continue softening and liquefying. Caramelization occurs when the sugar is throughly dissolved and the color is golden, brown to red amber. If you see smoke or smell burning, remove briefly from heat, stir gently, and allow to cool slightly before returning to lower heat. Whatever you do, don’t stick your finger in the caramel to taste it! It will be extremely hot and you will burn yourself.
4. Once caramel reaches a light, golden brown, immediately remove from stove and pour into a round 9 x 2 inches (23 x 5 cm) cake pan, covering the bottom and as much of sides as you can.
(As caramel is tough to master, check out these more detailed instructions by master pastry chef, David Leibovitz.)
To make cake:
1. Mix liquid ingredients in a blender or standing mixer to combine thoroughly.
2. One at a time, add dry ingredients, except for baking powder, and mix quickly again, until batter is uniform in texture and consistency. Don’t overbeat.
3. With a large spoon or spatula, add baking powder (be sure it’s not clumped together) and incorporate quickly into batter.
4. Place banana slices on top of caramel, along bottom and sides of pan.
5. Pour cake batter over bananas.
6. Place pan in oven and bake for approximately 35 minutes, or until a knife or toothpick inserted in cake’s center comes out clean.
7. Allow 30 minutes to let cake cool.
8. Run a knife around pan edge to loosen cake, then flip cake upside down on to a new plate. Serve.