Fantasia on a Theme of Bananas

I remember entering Guildford Cathedral after ringing the bells there for a morning service one Sunday. The air was filled with an emergent hubble-bubble of social chatter, the choir had disbanded and the vast space was slowly disgorging its occupants of the preceding hour. Only the organist remained, lost in the fulfillment of his duty. He played to the emptying cathedral, embroidering the chords of the final hymn in an enthusiastically elaborate extemporization.

With images of J. S. Bach at the keyboard, I was reminded of a little treatise on extemporization written in 1922 by Hamilton C. MacDougall:

To invent and play, on the spur of the moment and without specific preparation, an unwritten piece of music, long or short as the case may demand, conforming reasonably to the principles of musical composition, is to extemporize.

On the spur of the moment … impromptu … a musical improvisation.

Now, I’m certainly not claiming that my improvised banana cake was anywhere near as elevated or as sublime as a skillful organ extemporization.


However, the principles of my baking fantasia (with apologies to MacDougall) were the same.

How can the audience enjoy the extemporizer’s art if it does not recognize his theme?
I took a theme of bananas, one which is surely familiar to my audience.

One needs more than one subject to work with if one is to go on for more than a few measures.
Bananas and … buttermilk.

It is to differences in rhythm more than to differences in harmony or in melody that we have to look for suggestions.
Flour … flour … buckwheat flour.

Before this time, even, the player will have discovered how far his knowledge of harmony is a help to him in his improvisations.
How much of each ingredient? How many eggs? What size cake pans? What oven temperature? How much chemical leavening … what sort …. baking powder or baking soda …?

There is nothing less difficult than to overload a melody with chromatic, complicated and bizarre harmonies destroying the very object for which they were introduced.
A simple frosting that doesn’t compete with the taste of banana … white chocolate and buttermilk buttercream.

See that, wherever possible, melody and accompaniment are contrasted in tone-color, as well as in strength.
A scattering of toasted almonds for an uncomplicated, contrasting crunch.

A “reasonable confirmation to the principles of musical composition” is all that may be demanded of the student.
Well, it certainly looked and tasted like a banana cake to me …


There is no reason why a professional friend should not join with [the organist] in mutual practice and criticism. Men do not seem to do this sort of thing as often or as helpfully as women, but the suggestion may be worth considering.
… and Charlotte enjoyed it too.  (I just had to add MacDougall’s second sentence to the quote above – what an observation!)


Banana Buttermilk Fantasia Cake

8 oz buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
5 oz light muscovado sugar
2 medium eggs
7 oz mashed banana (2 to 3 bananas)
3 tbsp buttermilk

1 oz flaked almonds, crushed and toasted
4 oz white chocolate
2 tbsp buttermilk
3 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and baseline 2 x 7″ round cake pans.

Put the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and stir to mix. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the sugar and eggs until they have tripled in volume and are the colour of a frothy cappuccino (4 to 5 minutes).

Add the mashed banana and buttermilk. Stir to incorporate.

Stir in the dry ingredients until all are moistened.

Divide the batter between the 2 prepared cake pans. Bake in the centre of the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until the tops spring back to the touch.

Cool in pans for 10 minutes before removing and cooling the cakes on a wire rack.

To make the topping, melt the white chocolate in a medium-sized bowl. Beat in the buttermilk and softened butter. Refrigerate for 15 minutes before using.

When the cakes are absolutely cool, sandwich them together and cover the tops with the white chocolate and buttermilk buttercream. Sprinkle with the crushed and toasted flaked almonds.

Leave a comment


  1. Rosie

     /  September 20, 2009

    What a masterpiece of genius! Wonderfully done!

    I’m afraid I can’t stop grinning after that rendition.
    Rosie of BooksAndBakes

  2. Love this! Cooking and baking can certainly be an art, especially when it comes to the creative process. I often think of the best dishes as incredible music, layered, balanced, not short on surprise, but never more complex than necessary. Your cake looks just right!

  3. Lucy

     /  October 1, 2009

    ohmygod, I’m related to a genius! Seriously, did you make that amazing-looking cake?! Right, when you come and visit me you’re tied to the kitchen until you produce one here: count it as a birthday cake for me! Love to everyone with you at the moment, Lucy xxoo

  4. Your banana cake looks inviting. Must be great to have it for an afternoon tea 🙂


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