baking in Africa: coconut banana bars w/lime

It’s been a month since I’ve baked anything.

It’s been a month minus one day since I left the U.S. and boarded a plane for Nairobi, Kenya. When I decided to come here for three months to work for Akili Dada, one of the first thoughts that popped into my head was “I have to bake while I’m there.” I couldn’t go three months without baking. Just wasn’t an option. That said, I knew that baking in another country would be an adventure to say the least. And baking in Africa.. well, let’s just say I had been to Kenya before and didn’t recall a great number of pies or cookies abounding in the streets of Nairobi.

This recipe was an improvised variation on the blackberry shortbread bars I made earlier this year. I was inspired by the magical mini bananas that I can’t get enough of here, and thought coconut and lime would be fitting additions to this equatorial treat. I had come to accept that the outcome might very well be a complete and utter failure. The odds were against me. The recipe calls for both brown and white sugar, but I couldn’t find either kind in the three different supermarkets I went to (not that Kenya doesn’t have sugar, but apparently stocks are low in some places at the moment). I didn’t have measuring cups or measuring spoons at my disposal. I eyeballed. Nor did I have a hand mixer. I used an immersion blender that miraculously did the trick. The oven is in degrees Celsius, which was easy enough to work around since Google has all the answers to any of life’s questions. But the trickiest thing by far was that Nairobi is at about 5500 feet above sea level, and I’ve never baked in high altitude before. I didn’t really understand (and still don’t) why altitude makes SUCH A HUGE difference, but I just had a foreboding sense that my baked goods were going to burn to a crisp or never cook through or become soggy or any number of terrible things that would render them inedible.

However. The patron saints of high altitude, sugar shortage, and immersion blenders came through and this dessert was, against all odds, a success. A testament to the fact that sugar and butter and flour are made for each other, and living proof that baked goods transcend all [inter]national boundaries. When I shared the treats with my colleagues at the office, the first response was “So when are you baking again?”

Now that’s what I like to hear.

Coconut Banana Bars with Lime
Inspired by a recipe from Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey by Jill O’Connor

1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 2 T. dessicated coconut
1/4 cup mashed ripe bananas
1 1/2 cups fruit preserves (any kind will do, but pineapple or lime would go well)
Zest and juice from half a lime
1/2 cup chopped almonds
Confectioners’ (powdered) sugar for dusting

Combine the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer set at medium-low speed, beat until creamy. Add the banana, vanilla, lime zest and juice, and salt and beat until combined.

Beat the all-purpose flour and coconut into the butter mixture on low speed, just until smooth, soft dough forms.

Spray a 9-by-13 inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and press one third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. Wrap the remaining dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until very cold and firm, at least 30 minutes.

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325° F (162° C) .

Bake the bottom crust until it is firm and just beginning to turn pale brown around the edges, about 20-30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, let cool for a few minutes and then spread the preserves evenly over the crust. Crumble the remaining shortbread dough over the jam to form a pebbly, crumbled topping. Sprinkle with the chopped almonds and two tablespoons of coconut, plus a little more lime zest if you feel so inclined. Return the pan to the oven and continue baking until topping is firm and crisp and lightly golden in color, about 30-40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature. Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving.

Use a sharp knife to cut bars (makes 15 large or 30 small). Remove the bars from the pan with a metal spatula.

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