Bonus Sunday Baking: “Jacked Up” Banana Bread

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Each of my bananas was of varying degrees of over ripeness. I had to use them before the oldest banana was too ripe and headed to the compost…

I love bananas and almost always have them ripening on the counter.  I know they’re not local, but I do love them and eat at least one nearly every day of the year.  Usually I can eat them quickly — I like them more green than I do spotted and brown.  Once they get past where I think I’m going to want to eat them, I start piling them off to the side to get as ripe as possible without spoiling to make something delicious.  My usual recipe is a terrific banana chocolate chip muffin that stays yummy and moist for multiple days and is always a crown pleasing sweet.  Once in a while, though, it’s time for something else and it was a kind of silly reason that sent me looking for a recipe to try that was outside of my normal repertoire.

A third banana.

My muffin recipe only needs 2 bananas.  Sure, I could make a larger batch of muffins but sometimes just having something out of the ordinary can send you down a path.  Mine took me to food blogs by other people that I like.  In this case, it was smitten kitchen.  I did a quick search of banana and came up with “jacked up” banana bread.  I was intrigued for a couple of reasons.  One, it has spices like clove and nutmeg that I don’t usually associate with banana bread.  Two, it had a little bit of bourbon or whiskey added.

031After making my Sunday soup, I headed back in the kitchen to whip up the bread.  Other than mashing the bananas, it takes just a smidgen of measuring and a bit of stirring before going into a greased bread pan.  In my case, I baked it for about 47-48 minutes rather than the 50 minutes of the recipe.  Your oven might take longer.

035The results are not especially boozy, but the flavor combination of the bananas, the spices, and the whiskey is very pleasing.  The bread will be darker than typical banana breads and the texture is very moist even after a couple of days.  I froze half for later and took half to the office.  Everybody was a fan of this one!

 

Carrot and Red Lentil Soup

034We get amazing carrots from the farm in our weekly (summer) and bi-weekly (winter) CSA. I love that we often get carrots of other colors – purple, yellow, pale orange and deep orange. I love that some are long and thin while others are short and “stocky.” They never quite look like the super long, super thick carrots of the grocery store, but they are usually much better flavor raw and cooked. Certainly fresher.

I’ve been thinking about this soup recipe since carrots started showing up in our share in late summer and into fall. Because it really is only a few ingredients and features carrots, they have to be good and plentiful. Most of the time, we’d either just have a handful of carrots or I had something else in mind that came up and used what I had on hand.

A couple of weeks ago we got quite a few carrots and I might have even got more in the “swap” box, though to be honest I infrequently swap and instead just take the things other people leave behind. Last week we got more carrots so I knew I was finally destined to make my soup. It takes about 1.5 to 2 cups of chopped carrots, so you want them to be abundant and tasty. Other than that, you need an onion, red lentils, some tomato paste, cumin, broth or water, salt and pepper. Simple and delicious.

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Since it was Sunday, I decided to use my food processor to make quick work of chopping the carrots leaving them a bit chunky with some large-ish bits. Onion is better, I think, if chopped by hand.

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In a large pot, you put in the chopped onion and the chopped carrots. This time around, I had about 2 cups. My onion was large, so I’d guess it was about a cup or so. I added 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set the mixture to sautéing with just a little salt to get the veggies to release some liquid. The mixture cooks about 5-7 minutes.

015I make a little space in the middle and add in the spices to “brown” in the fat and veggie mixture.

  • 2 T tomato paste
  • 1 t cumin – less if you don’t like it as much, but I love it

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By the way, if you haven’t discovered tomato paste in a tube, get on board.  It’s so easy and convenient and there’s much less waste than buying cans when you really only need a bit.  I’ve been known to freeze tomato paste and keeping it the freezer, but this is even easier and faster.

First I let the tomato paste and cumin heat in the middle for a minute and then I mix it into the cooked veggie mixture. It helps to cook the tomato paste and spices a bit to bloom and deepen their flavor.  You do have to be careful because the paste and cumin will soak up any available liquid so the mixture will get a bit dry as it’s cooking.  Be careful not to walk away or it’ll scorch.

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Before it burns, add:

  • 6 cups liquid – could be broth, could be water (today I did water and just a bit of chicken bouillon, but normally I do a ‘box’ of broth stock which is 4 cups and 2 cups of water — I was out of box stock)
  • ¾ c red lentils
  • 3 T uncooked brown rice
  • ½ t salt
  • ¼ t pepper

The mixture then cooks for about 25 to 30 minutes or until the rice and lentils are tender and the liquid reduces a bit.

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That’s it. It’s the simplest recipe for one of the tastiest soups I know. Lentils are good for you and delicious and the brown rice adds some body and heartiness to the soup. The carrot flavor is enhanced by the cumin and its carrot freshness comes through in the finished product.

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It also holds up and reheats very well for leftovers (= not sad desk lunch) the next day or day after that.

Making pizza — yeast attempt #1

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Butternut squash, sliced salami and mozzarella on olive oil with pepper and coarse salt.

If you’ve read anything since January began, you know my “resolution” this year is to try to get comfortable using yeast in baking.  I don’t have a great track record and the most recent time I tried, I killed the yeast by using water that was too hot.

It doesn’t keep me from saving recipes for baked bread and other yeast products.  I bet my file of saved recipes has dozens and dozens of recipes I aspire to make.

Being as it was the first attempt, I knew I needed a win so I went for a recipe that you could make with cold tap water if you’d like because it’s a pizza dough with a very slow rise — 18 hours.  You basically make it one day, let it overnight, and then use it the next day.  I figured if I didn’t have to heat the water at all, I’d be less likely to make a mess of it.

It worked.  I used a recipe I had saved from Jim Lahey on the food 52 website.  I’ve read a bit about Jim Lahey because he’s got this idea of making bread dough in huge batches, storing it in your refrigerator (you’d need one bigger than mine to have the extra space), and then grabbing off a bit, letting it rise, and then you have fresh bread all of the time.  It’s a lovely idea.  Maybe someday when I have a full-size refrigerator and not the tiny one I have now…

The recipe says it makes 4 pizzas so I split the recipe in half.  It’s meant to be a thin, crispy crusted pizza so if you wanted thicker, you could probably make 2 pizzas with the same recipe.  In terms of the baking, it assumes you have a pizza stone.  I do not.  I had to improvise my own baking technique.  More on that later.

At about 6 p.m. on Saturday night I measured out and mixed up my dough.  I have a kitchen scale (thanks Groupon!) so I measured my flour and yeast by weight but the recipe on the food 52 site also gives you standard measurements.

  • 250 grams flour + 1 gram active dry yeast — should be .5 grams, but really…?
  • 1 t. salt
  • 3/4 c. water from the tap

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It’ll look a little shaggy but then it all comes together.  You don’t have to knead it and you just make sure it’s in a tidy ball, put cling wrap or a towel over it, and put it somewhere to rise.  In a couple of hours I could see it was changing.  062By the time I went to bed, it was looking pretty spongy and spreading.  I could see very affirming bubbles so I knew my yeast was working.  It was a relief not to be so worried.

It stayed in the oven overnight.  By the next morning, it looked a bit like it had the night before but it was a bit smoother and a bit 060stickier.  It had not yet been quite 18 hours (more like 12), but I was curious to see how my dough was doing so I cut off a small amount (maybe just under a third) to make a breakfast pizza with some bacon I had cooked a previous day, a little cheddar cheese, and a couple of eggs.

Like I said, I don’t have a pizza oven so I had to do a bit of improvising and since I was the only one eating it, I didn’t have to worry too much if my results weren’t great.  I dug out my cast iron crepe pan thinking it’s probably the most consistent heating and a good size, but I didn’t heat it in the over like you would a pizza stone.  Instead, I stretched out my dough, placed in on the pan sprayed with a little oil, and then added 069 070 071 073 074 084my toppings.  I tried baking it in a 425 degree oven for 10 minutes — sort of similar directions to frozen pizzas at the store.  My pizza looked mostly done and the eggs were cooked-ish, but the color wasn’t right.  I did end up turning on the broiler and leaving it to brown for about 3 minutes.  It meant the eggs got a bit overdone, so if I were to do it again, I’d bake 7-8 minutes and then broil for 2-3.

It was pretty tasty even though the eggs were overcooked.  The dough was both soft and crispy and it was the perfect start to a weekend day.

Later — closer to 18 hours — I decided to make a late lunch pizza to use up the rest of the dough.  I had roasted some cubed butternut squash on Friday in preparation for pizza making and I had some salami and mozzarella cheese to use with it.

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I had more dough so I used a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie sheet.  This time I decided to bake at 500 degrees like the recipe said, but again I don’t have a pizza stone and I didn’t preheat the pan on which I was baking.  I stretched out my dough and placed it on the pan.  To top it, I added olive oil, the squash, sliced salami (maybe 4-5 slices, tops), the cheese and a bit of pepper and coarse salt.  To keep the paper from burning in the hot oven, I cut off the corners and excess paper.   I put it into the 500 degree oven for 12 minutes (just a little more time, even though it was bigger) and then also broiled it for 3-4 minutes to get it brown on the top.  It was even better this way.  Crispy and soft.  The toppings perfectly warmed/melted.  A little char flavor on the crust to add interest.

107It was great.  The combination of baking and broiling is a nice effect.  I think my lunch try at the hotter oven temperature but erring on the side of being underdone was better for the crust texture and the results.  If, however, you have a pizza stone, then following Lahey’s directions exactly will probably produce even better results.

All in all, a very successful first yeast of 2016 experience!

 

Winter BLT

039When you work – in or outside the home – it can be hard at times to come up with the energy to make dinner. Even for someone like me for whom cooking is actually restful and fun, there are many nights (like last Thursday) when it’s just easier to pick up something fast or frozen and let the effort of someone else nourish me. It’s sometimes harder for me to rationalize when I know I have great, organic veggies from my CSA in the house because I don’t want to waste their effort to grow my produce or my money to buy it.

It’s my version of Sophie’s choice: cook or risk wasting vegetables.

On Friday night I was pretty tired from the week and it would have been so easy to just get something. I knew I had some leftovers in the fridge I could eat and in my efforts to keep the stuff in my freezer from going to waste, I had pulled out a half package of bacon that was stashed in the back on Wednesday. I knew I needed to do something with it soon but I wasn’t sure what I’d do. I figured if it was thawed, I’d be forced to get to it sooner rather than later.

Here’s the kismet of other people’s ideas. I was reading a blog post earlier in the day where a guy was saying how his friends celebrate new year’s day by getting together and eating BLTs and drinking champagne. The moment of “a ha” for me in the blog was that he said they used tomato jam as the T rather than fresh tomatoes which makes complete sense since January is not tomato season.

I went through a stint of making tomato jams two summers ago. Wisdom would say you should eat what you can within a year for best quality. I knew I had some jars that were getting close to 2 years or longer so instead of leaving them in the basement where they’d keep languishing, I brought them up to my dining room table and left them there to ‘shame’ me into use. One of the jars was a large, lovely jar of a tomato jam.

I had made two versions.  One was very intense with clove flavor and the other was a bit more spicy and flavored with cumin and coriander.  I wasn’t really sure which kind my jar was since I’d not labeled it well, but I was happy to find it was the spicier, cumin and coriander type.  Unlike ketchup, it’s got a more intense tomato flavor with the consistency of a jam — chunky and very glossy.

On the way home, I picked up a package of english muffins because I love the way their pockets capture butter or jam.  I knew I had a bag of lovely mixed winter greens from the farm — baby mustards, kale, tatsoi, arugula and chickory and raddichio — and my mystery jar of jam on the table and thawed bacon in the fridge.

Even on my tiredest nights, I try to help set myself up for cooking I might have planned for the next day or two.  I knew I was hoping to try my hand at pizza dough as the first of my attempts to get comfortable with yeast, so before making the sandwich, I prepped a butternut squash to roast in the oven while I ate my dinner.  I like butternut squash because it’s very easy to peel and cut up (unlike some winter squash).  I knew a few minutes now would save me lots of time on the weekend so I got it prepped and in the oven to roast in a 400 degree oven for about 30 minutes.

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As soon as the squash was in the oven, I started the bacon.  I cut a few strips in half for my sandwich.  After cooking those, I cut the rest of the bacon into small pieces and just fried it up so I’d have it for use over the next few days.  Again, sometimes it’s just easier to take the time when you have it so you save the time when you don’t or can’t be bothered.  As the bacon strips were draining on paper towel and the pieces were frying, I got to work picking over and cleaning the greens I intended to use on my sandwich.

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It was lovely to behold.  On top of the crispy english muffin, I added a generous 035 slathering of the tomato jam, the slices of crispy bacon, and then a generous and lovely topping of the winter greens.  It was almost too pretty to eat, but it was also 036pretty delicious.  The jam was spicy and sweet and a lovely foil for the salty bacon and the slightly bitter greens.  It was really once of the best BLTs I think I’ve ever had, so thank you to the inspiration of that other blog and that old jar of tomato jam!

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Yeast — a resolution I can keep

220I was at a gathering recently where the topic of resolutions came up. It morphed from there to things we might be afraid of doing. We wondered out loud how long a person would need to do something to get over whatever they are afraid of doing or don’t do well. Like aversion therapy. Expose yourself to the thing you fear and eventually you can manage it.

I love cooking. I think I’m a pretty good home cook and I’m happy on the stove or in the oven. But almost every person who cooks has some aspect of cooking they don’t like or don’t do well. For me, my fears are pie dough and making things with yeast.

I’ve tried a couple of ways of making pie crust in the last year – one made with butter and rolled and one made with oil and pressed. I will have to say I feel much better about pie crust. I wouldn’t be as phobic as I have been in the past. I always understood it conceptually, but my results had been less than stellar. Cracked crusts. Crusts that don’t come together. They taste ok but they look bad. This year, that was better.

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164My mom makes excellent crust which is probably part of my problem. Hers is a high bar. My dad has raved about her pie since I was little. I grew up knowing it was good — better than her mom’s and better than his mom’s. Flaky. Excellent. Delicious. Always perfect (or so it seemed to me…). A high bar.

Mine is favorable. I suppose if I made it more often it’d get better and better. I don’t love sweet pie so much but I do think I can commit to making savory pies like quiche or vegetable crostata (free form tarts).

Still, there’s yeast. I worked with it a bit in junior high home economics class, but only a bit. My grandmother made lovely yeasted cinnamon rolls and kuga (coffee cake) and my mom is now making them and they’re delicious. My grandmother made bread rolls and now my mom often makes her own bread!  Somehow this did not pass to me.

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Mom’s apricot kuga from Christmas!

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Prune kuga — also delicious on its sweet yeasted dough base.

A friend of mine in college tried making bread when we lived in a house together. It never rose so we ate this flat, heavy loaf of bread in solidarity with her. I tried a few years ago to make cinnamon rolls but the water must have been too hot. The dough tasted fantastic but it didn’t rise.  My friend and I ate them, kind of, but they mostly went into the garbage. Not good.

I have lots of friends who say it’s not hard. Again, I get it conceptually. Everyone says err on the side of cool water so you don’t kill the yeast by having the water be too hot. Try again. I get it. I just haven’t.  I need to try again.

I’m not sure I can keep a resolution any more than any other person, but here’s one I think I might be able to keep. I will try to make something with yeast – pizza dough, rolls, whatever – at least once per month. We’ll see how it goes.

Stay tuned.

Freezer chocolate chip cookies

069Recently, I feel like I keep writing about cooking that doesn’t go as planned.  I hope it inspires people to make the best of most situations in the kitchen.  It’s when things go awry that I learn how much I know in the kitchen.  Like a little pop quiz.    I had two recently during the holidays.

The first was dried beans that may have been older and drier than I expected.  After over an hour of simmering on the stove, they still refused to fully soften.  Luckily, I had time before my guests were coming — and happily they are very kind, forgiving people — so I put the whole mess into the crockpot and cooked it ON HIGH for several hours until everyone arrived.  It was edible.  Barely.  I hadn’t put in the tomatoes (acid) too early.  I hadn’t used salt.  The only thing I can think is the beans were SUPER old.  Oops.

The other challenge came recently but with more benign results.  I have been making brown butter whatever recipes a lot because the flavor is so good.  I was hungry for chocolate chip cookies and even though I’ve tried lots of other recipes, I kind of love the recipe for Toll House cookies on the back of the chip bag.  I did think my ‘twist’ could be brown butter for half of the butter.  I set to making the butter which is pretty easy.

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I love the recipe on the back of the bag!

You put a stick (or whatever amount you want) in a shallow saute pan and set it to melting on medium-ish heat.  After the butter melts, it’ll start to bubble and spurt.  Just as it starts to quiet, you’ll notice that the milk solids are settling and browning on the bottom of the pan.  That’s when you have to be careful.  You want nutty and delicious, not burnt.  I got the butter off the heat in time and all appeared well.  If you want to see photos of the process, see this post.

My mistake was not having patience.  I didn’t let the brown butter cool enough.  When I went to mix it into the creamed butter (the other stick) and the sugar, it melted the butter in the bowl.  Once I got the batter mixed, I was a bit worried about adding in the chocolate chips and having them melt, too, so once I had everything in, I put it in the fridge to set up again.

My second mistake was not having time to have made the first mistake, so the dough sat in the fridge for a couple of days.  If you believe some blogs, cookie dough should “age” at least 24 hours, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have been refrigerated for this time.  My mistake was that by being in the fridge, when I took it out for my second attempt, it was rock hard.  I’m guessing it was even harder than it would have been due to my melted butter.  I just didn’t have enough time to be able to let it come to a temperature where I could work with it, so back into the fridge it went.

And then my work got busy.  I had an evening meeting the next day.  I went home quickly before the meeting to put the bowl on the counter, but when I got home after the meeting, it was too later to start baking cookies.

What do do?

I see folks all the time freezing cookie dough.   The concept is basically that if you can roll it into a log, you can cut off discs, put them on to a baking sheet, and then just bake the cookies more or less the same way as you would if they weren’t frozen.  Maybe you need an extra minute, but not always.

I dug out waxed paper and stuffed the dough on it in a rough log form and then used the wax paper to roll and press it into a better looking log.  After it was wrapped up in the shape I wanted, I wrapped that in aluminum foil and then put the whole log into the freezer and forgot about it for weeks.

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The frozen dough, mid cutting of discs.

I had two gatherings around New Year’s to attend so I decide to break out and bake my frozen cookie dough log.  Using a sharp knife, I sliced off lovely discs of dough, put them on a cookie sheet, and sprinkled half with some coarse sea salt.  Into the oven as normal, they baked up beautifully and they were pretty uniform in shape so no raw or burnt cookies in either pan.

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I was pleased with myself.  No wasted dough.  Cooking challenge met and mastered.  The only passing thought I had during the process was “Hmm, that’s interesting.  My cookies are flatter than what a typical homemade cookie looks like and the knife cuts through some of the chips.  That’s interesting.”

Interesting is right.  At the first gathering, they were left untouched for a long time.  Part of that might have had to do with all of the other food at the party.  I think, however, that they looked too perfect in their roundness and people either thought they were bought or made from a break-and-bake packaged dough.  When I said out loud that I had brought homemade cookies, folks who know I cook were fast to eat them.  Until I said something, nothing much was happening on the plate.

At the second gathering, I learned my lesson and said early on that they were homemade and explained the “some are salted, some are normal” way I had arranged the container.  Much more successful, probably in part because we had kids in attendance as well!076

I’m not sure I’d do chocolate chip cookies this way again because of the chips getting cut off and the pleasing lumps and bumps of a homemade cookie not being present.  For a smooth cookie, however, this freezer idea would be genius, especially if you knew you had company coming and you needed a fast dessert.

Onward in the kitchen.