Banana bread: it's sweet, moist, tender, flavorful… and easy. SO easy, in fact, that it begs for variations: the addition of chocolate chips, transformation into muffins, a shower of shredded coconut on top. Or, as we’ve recently discovered, a swirl of rich filling inside.

Many of us old-timers learned to make banana bread in home ec. class; e.g. cooking and sewing, for those of you who were never subjected to it in junior high (er, middle school). Girls took home ec.; boys took shop, where they made end tables and gained a passing acquaintance with which way to turn a screwdriver, if my brother is any evidence.

Home ec. banana bread was usually the plainest of the plain: sugar, flour, eggs, oil, baking powder, salt, bananas. No spices; no nuts; the shorter (read: less expensive) the recipe the better. But, as with so much of American cooking, we gradually created fancier banana breads.

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Just as the plain Toll House Cookie has segued to Dark Chocolate Chunk Macadamia Sea Salt Crunchers, banana bread has become — well, our 2018 Recipe of the Year: Whole-Grain Banana Bread, scented with cinnamon and studded with nuts.

And now, for our latest version of America's favorite quick bread: banana bread filled with a swirl of sweetened cream cheese. Or cinnamon-y nut streusel; take your pick.

I've made both, shared both, and the consensus is... choosing a favorite isn't possible, they're both that good.

Let's see how it's done.

Banana bread with a cream cheese swirl

Whether it's carrot cake with cream cheese frosting or date-nut bread spread with cream cheese, there seems to be a natural affinity between smooth, rich cream cheese and dark, sweet cakes and breads. Thus this pairing.

First things first: Take an 8-ounce block of cream cheese out of the refrigerator, unwrap it, place it in a mixing bowl, and let it come to room temperature.  Skipping this step will result in a lumpy swirl.

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Add the following to the cream cheese in the bowl:

1/3 cup (2 3/8 ounces) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt

Beat at low speed until smooth, or nearly so. For easiest pouring, transfer to a spouted measuring cup.

Make the batter for our Whole-Grain Banana Bread, omitting the nuts.

Why leave out the nuts? With the nuts AND the swirl, the volume of the batter really pushes the capacity of a typical 9" x 5" x 2 3/4" pan. Add them if you like, but put the pan onto a baking sheet to catch any potential batter spillover in the oven.

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Pour one-third of the batter into a lightly greased 9" x 5" loaf pan. This should be about 1 1/3 cups batter. If you have a scale, weigh the batter and mentally divide it in three; each third will weigh about 375g. Notice I say "about;" don't stress if you have slightly more or less batter, everything will work out just fine.Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Spoon half the cream cheese mixture atop the batter. If you're measuring by volume, this is about 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons; by weight, about 160g.Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

If desired, swirl the filling into the batter minimally. You'll see at the end what effect you get from swirling rather than simply layering.

Repeat the layers: a third of the batter, the remaining half of the filling, and the final third of the batter.Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Don't forget the cinnamon-sugar on top!

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour
Your bread will likely develop a larger-than-usual crack on the top. Hey, looks aren't everything; that cream cheese expands and needs somewhere to go.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350°F oven for about 85 to 90 minutes, tenting it with foil after about 50 minutes (to prevent over-browning). When done, the bread should register at least 195°F at the center.

Let the bread cool for about 10 minutes before removing it from the pan and placing it on a rack to cool completely.

Banana bread with a cinnamon-streusel swirl

You know that wonderful swirl of filling in a cinnamon-streusel coffeecake? That's what we're replicating here. We've taken the chopped nuts that would ordinarily go into the batter, and added them to the streusel instead; doing so makes a thicker swirl, and better presentation.

Make the batter for our Whole-Grain Banana Bread, omitting the nuts.

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Stir together the following:

1/2 cup (3 3/4 ounces) brown sugar, light or dark
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 cup (2 ounces) chopped walnuts, toasted if desired*
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

*Toasting nuts adds richness to their flavor. I always toast nuts in my toaster oven; it takes about 6 to 8 minutes at 350°F. Some people prefer dry-frying their nuts, and some even microwave them; your choice.

Once again, mentally divide the batter in thirds.

Pour one-third of the batter into a lightly greased 9" x 5" pan.

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Top with half the streusel (about 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons; about 85g).

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Top with another third of the batter; don't worry about the batter covering the streusel entirely.

Sprinkle on the remaining streusel, and finish with the remaining batter. Again, remember the cinnamon-sugar on top; it's a delicious final touch.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350°F oven for about 80 to 85 minutes, tenting it with foil after about 50 minutes (to prevent over-browning). When done, the bread should register at least 199°F at the center.

Why the difference in baking time/temperature between this and the cream cheese swirl bread? With all the moisture from the cream cheese, it takes longer for that loaf to bake all the way through; and its final temperature will be a bit lower, since it's a slightly moister bread.

The swirl revealed

Ready to see how these breads turned out?

It's difficult to wait for them to cool before slicing; kind of like waiting in bed on Christmas morning for your parents to give the signal. But please do wait until they're, at most, lukewarm before taking a knife to them.

Here they are:

Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

Smile! The two layers of cream cheese filling turn into a couple of smiles. Why the "droop" in the center? Bread bakes from the outside in, holding the filling in place along the sides, but allowing the center to sink just a bit before the batter sets around it.

You can see this same effect in the bottom layer of streusel swirl; the middle is more muddled. Also, be prepared: you'll see a larger "smile" in the center of the loaf than you will at either end.

And what about the cream cheese layers that I swirled into the batter rather than leave undisturbed?Sweet twist on banana bread via @kingarthurflour

The "swirl" became a rather haphazard marbled effect that changed throughout the loaf. The large-ish blobs of cream cheese were scattered throughout, rather than forming an even layer stretching from side to side. As always, your choice.

So, what do you think — ready to give this bread a swirl? Again, start with our Whole-Grain Banana Bread and add filling: cream cheese, cinnamon-streusel, or your own favorite. I hear toffee crunch bits calling my name...

What other swirls sound good to you? Let us know in comments, below.

Also — if you took home ec. or shop back in the day, give a shoutout to your teacher! He or she may be long gone, but it's the thought that counts. (Thank you, Mrs. Deabler at Central Junior High...)

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About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was an award-winning Maine journalist (favorite topics: sports and food) before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. Hired to write the newly launched Baker’s Catalogue, PJ became the small but growing company’s sixth employee.PJ wa...
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