Back when I ran a bakery in Berkeley, quick breads (or tea loaves, as I call them) were a daily staple, sold by the slice or the loaf. During the holidays, we would make them in miniature loaves, and they flew out the door. I think it was the charm of their diminutive size that made them so popular.
It’s easy to make mini loaves yourself at home, either to serve for drop-in guests or to wrap and give as gifts. Their petite size makes them feel like a special treat, especially if you pack them with rich and fragrant ingredients like chocolate, cranberries, pumpkin, and spices. These loaves stay moist and flavorful for a few days at room temperature and lose little of their quality when frozen. Depending on the size pans you use, each recipe makes as many as four loaves, so you can take care of your gift list in just a few baking sessions.
Baking with mini loaf pans
Sizes of miniature loaf pans vary widely. All these recipes were tested in pans that had volumes of 17 to 18 fluid ounces. Because most loaf pans don’t list their volume, you often have to calculate it yourself. Do this by filling the pan to the inside rim with water, then pour the water into a large Pyrex measuring cup. Our top choices for mini loaf pans are the Chicago Metallic Professional mini loaf pan, which measures 5-3/4 x 3-1/4 x 2-1/4 inches (available through KitchenKapers.com) and the Hefty EZ Foil loaf pan, which measures 5-3/4 x 3-1/4 x 2 inches (available at most supermarkets).
Once you decide on a pan size, look for shiny, light metal pans—dark pans made the edges of these breads too brown and dry in our tests. Nonstick pans worked well, but should still be oiled and floured to ensure easy release. If using the mini foil pans, place them on a baking sheet before filling with batter, to support the bottoms.
Quick breads come together fast, but how you mix the ingredients has a huge effect on the texture and structure of the finished loaf. Many quick breads can be heavy and dense, which is often the result of using oil as the fat and undermixing the batter. It may be nontraditional, but I use butter in my quick breads, which lends a richer flavor. This also lets me steal a page from cake makers and use the creaming method in mixing my quick bread, for a tender, cake-like loaf that is still sturdy enough to pack and travel well.
Don’t over fill
If you use a pan with different dimensions than those we suggest, be sure to fill it no more than two-thirds full. This might leave you with leftover batter, which you can discard or use to make muffins. Overfilling can cause batter to spill over the sides, or result in tunnels in the finished bread. Or it can lead to an uneven rise. Underfilling will result in a smaller loaf that tends to be a bit dry, as the ratio of moist inner cake to edges is smaller.
The creaming method involves beating the butter until pale and soft and then adding the sugar and beating until fluffy. This incorporates air into the batter and is the secret to a light, not leaden, quick bread. Once the batter is fluffy, add the eggs one at a time and then add the dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk. The key to a compact—but not too dense—loaf is beating the butter and sugar enough to incorporate air, yet not overmixing after the flour and liquid are combined.
I’ve tapped the flavors of the season to create loaves you’ll want to share, whether by slicing for visiting guests or giving as gifts. All of these keep well at room temperature for three to five days or in the refrigerator for a week. If you wrap them in plastic, then foil, you can freeze them for up to six weeks, so you can bake them well before the holiday chaos begins.