Chef Whitney Otawka grew up in the California desert, but it wasn’t until her twenties, while working her way through some of Georgia’s top kitchens, that she fell in love: with a southern boy and his region’s food. (That boy happened to be a pastry chef, so he wooed her with biscuits, of course.) Now, as chefs-in-residence at the legendary Greyfield Inn on Georgia’s remote Cumberland Island, the duo’s roots are firmly planted. But one bite of Whitney’s food is evidence that the love story continues: her respect for Southern culinary traditions and passion for the diverse bounty of her adopted home shine out on every plate. Last year she published her first cookbook, The Saltwater Table: Recipes From the Coastal South, which collects her inspirations and chronicles her colorful adventures cooking on a wild, beautiful–and quintessentially Southern–barrier island. Here, she shares a recipe for a tender, tropical-accented banana bread that’s a perfect excuse to break out a bag of White Lily and treat yourself to something sweet.
“I grew up in California–what did I know about White Lily? Instead, my White Lily education has come entirely by way of my better half, my husband Ben. His family has been in the South forever, literally: He recently did an ancestry report and his DNA said he’s related to one of the original settlers of Alabama!
Ben’s grandma just recently passed. She was the best cook in the family and it was her table that the whole clan always gathered around. No meal was ever complete without biscuits or cornbread–and White Lily was the only flour she ever used. And now, as Southern chefs ourselves, Ben and I feel like it’s an honor to be able to use it. Because not every region has heritage products like White Lily that really stand out, and have become such a deep part of the culinary vernacular. And that’s amazing.
At Greyfield, we keep all kinds of flours in the kitchen, but at home Ben and I always have a bag of White Lily, and especially when we cook grandma’s recipes, we’ll go right to it. It’s so delicate, like a pastry flour. And there’s something about the flavor of that wheat that, everytime you take a bite, just pulls us back into the family, into memories, and I think that’s really important.
There’s a way you can play to tradition just by honoring ingredients, and for me that’s the sweet spot of Southern cooking, that’s what it’s all about. Biscuits are an all time favorite around here–heck, I like to joke that they’re the reason I married Ben–but lately I’ve been making a banana bread that people have been going crazy for, too. It has buttermilk and coconut oil in it so it stays super moist. A sweet bread like this, I like with a really dark, bitter coffee. Sitting down for a moment in the morning to have a hot coffee and a slice of something sweet–to me, that’s the best kind of self care.”
Banana Walnut Bread
Excerpted from The Saltwater Table by Whitney Otawka (Abrams 2019)
Makes 2 loaves
5 bananas, overripe and brown
3 cups White Lily All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground allspice
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for the pans
½ cup coconut oil, room temperature
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups toasted and chopped walnuts
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
2. Peel 4 of the bananas and mash them together until smooth (you should have about 2 cups); set aside.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and salt. Set aside.
4. In an electric mixer, use a paddle attachment to beat together the butter, coconut oil, 1 cup brown sugar, and the granulated sugar until light and airy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and beat on low speed until combined. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Add the mashed bananas, walnuts, buttermilk, and vanilla and mix until combined.
5. Equally divide the batter between the two loaf pans. Smooth with a spatula. Peel the remaining banana, cut in half lengthwise and place each half on top of the batter in each pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon brown sugar over the banana slices. Bake until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour, rotating the pans halfway through. Let the bread cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and let cool completely on a wire rack.